It is understandable why this is – activities in the industry are inherently more complex and dangerous than other industries. Waste has to be collected (posing risks to members of the public and a variety of site and access issues), it has to be sorted, processed and recovered (often using large powerful machinery), organic material may need biological treatment (dangerous substances), some will go to landfills (again powerful machinery and potential for issues around odour and noise), as well as the risk of fire and explosion.
The sector is however key and at the cutting edge of sustainability and national environmental goals. Compliance with health and safety regulations is vital in mitigating risk, and ensuring the success of the business and the safety of its employees and the wider community. There is a clear need to be proactive and ensure that health and safety is addressed, systems are put into place, training is provided and this is reviewed and updated as required. Risk assessment and effective control measures which everyone understands and complies with is the key.
A range of recent legal cases have demonstrated the importance of health and Safety within the waste industry:
- In February 2022, a recycling company were prosecuted when a 15-year-old employee of the company suffered 22 per cent burns to his body when aerosol canisters he had fed into a shredding machine exploded caused a flash fire on the premises. The HSE found that the work unit was not an appropriate facility for processing aerosol canisters; that there was a lack of control measures to prevent or mitigate fire and explosion risks, and despite this, the activity was undertaken by minors, employed as a part of a casual working arrangement, using inadequate equipment. The company was fined £66,000 and ordered to pay £8,192.55 in compensation to the injured person.
- In September 2021, another recycling company, following a HSE routine visit, received nine prohibition notices and seven improvement notices due widespread poor management of health and safety including a lack of competent advice, risk assessments and poor management within the company, which resulted in a deterioration of conditions on site. The company were subsequently issued with a £200,000 fine and order to pay costs of £7,125.72
- A further example is the prosecution of a waste collection company in March 2021, who received a £1.02m fine plus costs of £60,476. Following an investigation by the HSE, it was found that there had not been a suitable risk assessment performed for the collection route and there was a failure in management’s supervision when an employee who was working with three other people in a refuse truck collecting waste from properties was crushed under the wheels of the reversing lorry.
The sector has also been at the centre of corporate manslaughter cases in recent times, further highlighting the dangers and the importance of managing them:
- In March 2022, an aluminium recycling company was fined £2 million (the highest corporate manslaughter fine for a single charge to date) after it pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter following the death of an employee who sustained fatal head injuries when his head came into contact with the moving parts of a chain conveyor. The fine would have been a third higher if it wasn’t for the guilty plea. The investigation found that dangerous parts of machinery were unguarded after gates that had been installed to prevent access fell into disrepair and that employees often entered the machinery to manually clear blockages whilst conveyors were in motion and not isolated. The firm had only 80 employees but is one of the largest companies convicted of corporate manslaughter to date and the fine amounted to 71% of its pre-tax profit. In the same case, three directors / managers (the managing director, the production director; and the health and safety manager) pleaded guilty to health and safety offences on the basis that gross negligence manslaughter charges were dropped (in essence they accepted the failings but not that they had caused the death). Financial penalties were imposed on all three, the highest being £15,000.
- Three months later, in June 2022, a second £2 million fine was handed down to a food waste recycling company (now in liquidation) convicted of corporate manslaughter following the death of two employees who drowned after falling into a road haulage tanker containing semi-liquid pig feed (£1 million was imposed for each death). The deaths occurred after one employee got into difficulty after he had climbed into the tanker to clean it with a power hose (the system in place for cleaning tankers) and a colleague climbed in to try to rescue him. Both died from drowning after being either overcome by toxic product or from lack of oxygen. The court heard that there was no proper risk assessment for the cleaning, no method statement, no PPE / breathing equipment and that previous concerns raised by employees had been ignored. The company had also had a previous fatal accident in 2005. This company was run by a husband and wife. One, who was responsible for the day-to-day running of the site and had tasked the deceased with cleaning out the tank, was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for gross negligence manslaughter. The other, the Managing Director, was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment for health and safety offences. The Transport Manager who was in charge of the yard received a 1 year suspended sentence again for health and safety offences.
These cases demonstrate the need for Health and Safety to be a priority area, integrated into the way the institution operates, led from the top and part of the organisations culture and regularly reviewed and updated as it is clear that the HSE will not hesitate to take appropriate enforcement action against companies that fall below the required standards.
At Bevan Brittan, we recognise and understand the challenges you face. Our team of health and safety and criminal regulatory specialists have a vast experience in advising waste and recycling companies in all aspects of compliance, enforcement and litigation, and are able to provide both proactive and reactive advice. Our proactive approach in developing your processes will enhance your health and safety practices, but if the worst does happen, you will be glad to have our engaged and knowledgeable specialists familiar with your business and working as part of your team.