Securing justice

Victims talk about HSE's role in securing justice for them

Ryan Wilkes

Ryan was exposed to dangerous levels of mercury while working at a recycling firm in Huddersfield, in 2008. He was only 23 when he started noticing the terrifying effects of mercury poisoning. HSE investigated his employer and brought a successful prosecution that resulted in a £145,000 fine.

"At the height of my illness it was very distressing and it greatly affected my life. For that I can't forgive the company for putting profits before my health.

"HSE's involvement was tremendously appreciated by all the staff. It had been going on for so long by then and it was great that HSE were taking it so seriously. Throughout the whole saga my employer was more interested in saving his own skin than helping with the investigation.

"During the investigation though, HSE were fantastic. Even though I'd left the firm by the time my witness statements were taken, they kept me full informed throughout the whole process. I can't speak highly enough of the level of service they provided. It was incredibly reassuring to be so well supported and listened to every step of the way."

Justice for Ashleigh

The family of Ashleigh Ewing was no different to many people whose only contact with The Health and Safety Executive was the occasional amusing 'elf and safety' story in the tabloids. They had no real idea of what HSE actually did, until tragedy struck the family in 2006.

Ashleigh, then 22, was an employee of Mental Health Matters Ltd (MHM), a Sunderland-based charity providing support to people with mental health problems in the community.

The young care worker was attacked and murdered whilst visiting client Ronald Dixon at his home address in Newcastle in May of that year. Ashleigh had worked for MHM for just six months and was on the final day of her probationary period.

HSE prosecuted MHM and the charity was ordered to pay £50,000 after admitting to breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 law by failing to properly protect the newly qualified support worker.

During the prosecution of MHM, Newcastle Crown Court heard no up-to-date risk assessment had been carried out on schizophrenic Dixon, despite escalating concerns about his behaviour. In addition, Ashleigh had not been trained properly in calculating risk.

Ronald Dixon was sent to a secure hospital indefinitely and after the case Ashleigh's family called for "major changes" to prevent a repeat of the tragedy.

HSE argued successfully that MHM had a statutory duty to ensure the health and safety at work of employees and it failed to discharge that duty and failed to identify and respond to the increasing risks to which Ashleigh was exposed, failing to give her the level of protection the nature of her job warranted.

Ashleigh's sister Laura, 23, tells here how HSE helped the family and brought "justice for Ashleigh".

Speaking from her Newcastle home, Laura said: "HSE were so helpful in bringing about some justice for Ashleigh and the implementation of their findings will hopefully enable others to be safe in similar circumstances.

"After the criminal proceedings, we felt we still had a lot of questions that remained unanswered but after the HSE case we felt we had received these answers. As a family we finally feel we have some kind of closure for ourselves and for Ashleigh. We cannot thank them enough for what they have done.

"From the beginning the HSE inspectors were brilliant. They were extremely honest and open with us, speaking to us regularly on phone and making numerous house visits to us to discuss important developments with us. I feel that the relationship we had with them developed as time went on giving a transparent view on proceedings- we felt we could put our trust in them.

"Though it's their job, the level of care, consideration and compassion shown both to us and to Ashleigh's memory was far above what we expected. It was apparent that HSE had our best intentions at heart with them constantly pushing the case to be heard. It is this, alongside their hard work, determination and expertise that we have never truly valued until now.

"Like many people, I too, was naive to the work HSE carried out, but now I have come to recognise it as one organisation where efforts should be recognised and praised. If it wasn't for them we would not have got the justice Ashleigh deserves. HSE secured this and made a difference not only for us but for others – that's the best tribute I can pay to it.

"Mental Health Matters needed to answer for their failings and I believe without HSE we would not have got the justice and changes needed."

Laura's dad Jeff said: "I can't speak highly enough of the HSE. They were very sensitive to the family's needs, and explained everything to us all the way down the line.

"They came to the house and had a good talk with us before the court case, talking us right through the process. They were excellent from start to finish."

We wanted answers about dad's death

Stuart Jordan, 50, died in 2004 after an argon gas leak at the manufacturing plant of Bodycote HIP Ltd metal refining company in Hereford.

Stuart, the firm's works manager was found collapsed alongside colleague Richard Clarkson on a stairwell into which argon gas had leaked from a large pressure vessel. On the day of the incident, the ventilation system and the oxygen alarm system were turned off.

Five years after the tragedy, in July 2009, the Bodycote HIP Ltd was fined over half a million pounds following the deaths of the two men.

Both deaths were not only regrettable but entirely preventable. The risks from confined spaces and asphyxiation due to the presence of argon were well known to the company, which had experience of a similar double fatality at a Bodycote Group site in California, just three years earlier.

Despite this warning the company failed to undertake a proper risk assessment for entry into the confined space. They had implemented a safe system of work and permit to work procedure but had not trained employees in their use, or ensured that these systems and procedures were being followed through their auditing procedure.

Stuart's son Luke, 28, said until tragedy touched the Jordan family his contact with HSE had been limited to submitting RIDDOR reports in his job at British Telecom.

The father of two said: "I had an inkling about HSE through my work at BT but I never fully understood the whole picture concerning the work they undertake. I suppose I was quite ignorant regarding exactly what they did.

"Just a week after dad died, HSE held a meeting for us so we could ask questions and try to begin to understand what exactly happened on the day. HSE booked a conference room where we all met and the seriousness of which they were taking the incident was absolutely brilliant and they allowed us to ask all of our questions.

"Obviously with the nature of the accident we wanted answers quickly. We wanted to know why something like this was allowed to happen.

"At that point there wasn't a great deal HSE could tell us because of the complexity of the accident and the fact it was very early on in their investigation. However, they made themselves available at all times if we wanted to speak to them about anything at all. We found that very comforting.

"In fact, during the six years the investigation took we felt we could approach HSE at any time if we needed. They were always there to speak to and answer our questions.
"From the outset we felt HSE were on our side, I mean, I know they are impartial but we felt they were the people who would be fighting our corner for us, finding out the truth about how this incident occurred.

"Luke Messenger in particular would speak to me regularly about what was going on and if a new development occurred we would speak and that carried on throughout the initial investigation and the subsequent appeal by the company. The whole process was completely transparent from the outset and they handled the whole thing with real sensitivity which was a wonderful thing to do.

"HSE went way and above the call of duty in the way they handled our family over the last six years and I can't praise the professionalism and consideration directed toward my family enough.

"You can't put a price on a life, but in this case I believe HSE secured some kind of justice for dad. They worked so hard on this, compiling the evidence and ensuring the conviction was upheld.

"Though the whole episode has cast a shadow on my family, this is something we can draw comfort from, there is no bright side to something like this but HSE secured the best outcome and we feel relieved the company has been held to account."

Updated: 2021-06-08