Health and Safety
I grew up in an era when Health and Safety was not even heard of. You took care of yourself and you were responsible to yourself.
My father had founded our electrical contracting company in 1967. We did mainly electrical work for industry. We were working in a large industrial company at night to complete some repairs to the installation. There was an electrician and an apprentice working together. The apprentice went off to find the toilets and on the way back he noticed a pallet truck. He walked over to the pallet truck which was a powered unit that was guided by hand. It looked interesting and he started to try and use it. Unfortunately he had no training and lost control. It crushed him against the wall and killed him. He was 16 with his life in front of him. Whilst everyone acknowledged the tragedy there was no thought of compensation or blame. It was everyone acknowledged a tragic accident. Although my father was deeply upset by the incident there was no concept of changing the way we worked.
You can read of the way that I worked myself here
I joined the company in 1976. One of my first tasks was to implement the provisions of the Health and Safety at work act 1974. The act said that it was the duty of every employer to ensure the health and safety of all employees and the public as far as was reasonably practicable. At the time this meant writing a health and safety policy. I did this and that was about all that happened.
The interpretation of these words gradually became greater and greater in scope. Today they mean that if an incident occurs and someone is hurt then if it could have been prevented with the wisdom of hindsight then you didn’t do everything that was reasonably practicable. It is a very high bar to jump. Effectively it means that the word accident has no meaning. There are no accidents only incidents and as an employer you are guilty. I will return to this theme later in this piece but first I want to talk about my attempted prosecution for health and safety.
The year was 1991 and I was driving back to our offices having been to visit a site. As I went into the office I was told that the accident happened. They said that one of our apprentices have fallen off a ladder in the workshop. We had an area where we parked the vans at night and there was an area above the offices where junk was stored. The electrician thought that amongst the junk was a light fitting that he could use. He found a ladder climbed up above the offices and tried to find it. The apprentice decided to follow and climbed the ladder. He went too high and the ladder started to slip away. At that point he could have held onto the the edge of the mezzanine but he chose instead to hold on to the ladder as it plunged towards the ground. This meant that as the ladder hit the ground his hands took the impact and broke his wrists.
You have to report incidents such as this and we did so. Health and Safety within works premises came under the jurisdiction of the local authority. They sent some inspectors round to investigate. Unfortunately I wasn’t there at the time and my father saw them and in no uncertain terms told them to sod off. I realised that this was a bad mistake and went to see the local authority, apologised and gave them a full account and full access.
The apprentice got better and I thought the incident was over. The local authority had six months in which to bring a prosecution and on January 2, 1991 ( 5 months 29 days elapsed) they delivered to my house a writ which accused me of personal criminal liability for the accident. I was incandescent with fury. I failed to understand how I personally could have done anything to prevent the accident since I wasn’t even there. I hired a barrister and there followed a long period whilst the trial was prepared and I fumed. Eventually in June 1991 we arrived in the local magistrates court. The trial was scheduled to last three days. The prosecution was led by a London barrister hired by the local authority and was matched by my legal team. As far as I was concerned money was irrelevant I was not going to be criminally prosecuted. The trial dragged on with witness after witness being called. Eventually on Friday lunchtime the prosecution rested. My barrister immediately stood up and said "I put it to the court that my client has no case to answer." The magistrates retired and came back a few minutes later agreeing that indeed there was no case for me to answer.
Having won the case I went back to work and my father was in the workshop. I explained what had happened and said that we must make any changes to prevent it ever happening again. He saw no reason to alter anything and proposed carrying on as he always had. I don’t think I have ever been so angry. I stormed off and seriously considered resigning from the company that I had worked tirelessly to build up. I felt trapped between my duty to my father and to what I knew I had to do. This became a continuing theme between us with continuing ongoing arguments.
To see how the world had changed we need to fast forward to 2006. One of our experienced electricians who was on the Health and Safety committee didn’t carry out some work one day when the correct access equipment was present. He felt guilty that he had carried out the work and so arrived at the site very early in the morning to carry out the work he should have done the previous day. The area where he was to work had barriers around it preventing access. He demolished the barriers, started work, slipped and fell to his death. Everyone acknowledged the tragedy and we did all we could to support the family. Under the circumstances it was difficult to see what we could have done to prevent the accident short of making the barriers impossible to dismantle. However in today’s world a prosecution was bound to follow and so it did. Fortunately for my sanity it was a prosecution against our company and the main contractor rather than personal individuals. Our barrister summarised the position. "A tragedy has happened, a worker has been killed you are large companies. Therefore, inevitably you are guilty. There is no point fighting simply agree a compensation figure." This we did