Employers in the UK are responsible for the health and safety of their employees and have a duty to protect them and ensure they have received the relevant training to do their job safely and without risk, precisely to prevent fatal injuries at work.
Farms in particular carry risks associated with the use of heavy machinery and equipment, including forklift trucks, potentially among the most hazardous vehicles in the workplace.
To protect employees using forklifts, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the British Industrial Truck Association have issued specific guidelines and safety measures to ensure the safety of those operating the trucks. Key here is a pressure safety switch, or 'dead man's switch' situated under the seat, which cuts out the engine and hydraulics three seconds after someone alights the seat, preventing the truck from moving even if, for example, the handbrake is not properly engaged.
Our investigation for the work accident compensation claim show that Zach had only recently undergone forklift truck training, and the trainer noted that he appeared to be very enthusiastic with a high level of competency. However, the trainer also indicated that Zach had occasionally forgotten to put the handbrake on and should be supervised when operating the forklifts.
On the fatal day, Zach was working with his employer clearing a yard and was supervised while using the forklift. But towards the end of the day, the employer left the yard to collect a trailer, leaving Zach alone on the site and, crucially, unsupervised.
Unfortunately, no-one witnessed what happened next, but it is likely that Zach got off the forklift to possibly dislodge something stuck beneath the rear wheel. It is believed that when Zach removed the block, the truck started to move and crushed him against the wall. This would have happened very quickly, leaving Zach no time to escape. Tragically, the paramedic's attempts at CPR were unsuccessful.
When we took on this case on, it was entirely unclear how the accident happened. With no-one in the seat, the vehicle should not have moved. The safety switch should have automatically turned the engine off. It became clear, however, that the seat safety switch on the forklift truck had been disabled. This was not simply a case of it being ineffective, rather it had actively been tampered with.
At the Inquest at Norwich Coroners Court in September 2022, the Coroner was told that a metal u-shaped pin had been inserted into the seat switch to positively disable the switch. This same tampering was also apparent on another truck in the yard.
The evidence suggested that seat safety switches may be disabled to cut corners and save time. Several ex-employees gave evidence to confirm they had not been trained to use forklifts, despite requesting relevant training. While Zach had been trained, he could not have known that the safety switch had been disabled before he used the truck. Even if he had failed to apply the handbrake, the safety switch should have kicked in as he exited the seat.
The important question is when does an employer decide that profit is more important than safety, more important than someone's life. If the switch had not been disabled, Zach would still be with his family today. He was just 18 years-old, and had only been working for a month. Zach's family has been destroyed by their loss and they all miss him terribly.
The Coroner decided to issue a Regulation 28 Prevention of Future Death Order against two of the companies owned by Zach's employer, the sternest warning available. Because the employer did not give evidence at the inquest, he is now obligated within 56 days to prove that he is either fully health and safety compliant, or that there is a timetable in place to address the issues raised by the Coroner.
Mrs and Mrs Richardson priority is that a similar accident never happens again Their sincere hope is that other employers seeking to cut corners with safety in the workplace will think twice about the danger they are inflicting on their employees.
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