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Waste firm Sterecycle fined £500k for corporate manslaughter after autoclave explosion

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A Rotherham waste management company pioneering new recycling technology has been found guilty of corporate manslaughter after poorly-maintained plant exploded under high pressure, killing one worker and seriously injuring another.


Sterecycle (Rotherham) Limited, which has since gone into liquidation, was found guilty on the unanimous verdict of a jury at Sheffield Crown Court on 7 November. It was fined £500,000, the highest penalty to date under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007.

Michael Whinfrey, 42, was an autoclave operator at the firm’s plant at Templeborough, Rotherham. On 11 January 2011 the door of the autoclave, which had for some time been recognised as a problem, failed and blew out.

Mr Whinfrey suffered fatal head injuries and his colleague was left fighting for his life. The force of the blast was so great it blew a hole in the wall of the factory.

Addressing the company in his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Jay said: “Although you were neither present nor represented in these proceedings, I have to say that the evidence against you has been overwhelming.

“Mike Whinfrey died as a result of systemic failings in the way the running of this autoclave was managed and operated by you. A substantial element in those failings was attributable to your senior management.”

The firm’s two autoclaves formed part of an experimental process, and if successful may have been rolled out across the country. The two autoclave chambers had household waste fed into them and high temperatures and steam pressure were applied to treat the waste and convert it into a fibrous material that could be used as fertiliser.

A joint investigation, conducted by South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive, found that the explosion resulted from the failure of a screw connection to the autoclave locking ring, which secured the door to the machine.

The jury was presented with evidence outlining how Sterecycle, which had around 50 members of staff, cut corners to save money and keep production going until the autoclaves were retired from service. The company even removed safety devices because they slowed production.

The court heard how there was not a proper system in place to ensure that the moving parts of the locking ring and the door were properly cleaned, greased and maintained.

Instead, the maintenance system was essentially reactive. As a result, the court heard, wear built up in many critical areas of the mechanism, defects in the machine were not addressed and a screw that had been missing for months before the incident was not replaced.

To make matters worse, the door on the autoclave was misaligned and was never properly repaired, but simply patched up. The door seals consistently failed and the locking ring was seen to move under pressure during operations.

Mr Justice Jay added: “The overall impression given by the evidence taken as a whole is that you were way out of your depth, and overly driven by the desire to maintain production. It is an aggravating feature of this offence that the breaches of duty which occurred took place over a lengthy period of time measurable in years, not months.”

It is the eighth successful prosecution since the 2007 act entered that statute books and the only fine that has met the level set out by the Sentencing Guidelines Council.  

However, as the firm has gone into liquidation, the judge acknowledged that little, if any, of the fine would be paid. Instead, the judge said the fine “will serve to mark society’s condemnation of your behaviour, and may act as a deterrent to others”.

HSE inspector Carol Downes said: “Sterecycle (Rotherham) Ltd didn’t properly understand the risks of, and lacked the competence in, operating steam pressure autoclave systems.

“Modifications were made to the autoclaves without adequately considering the effect on the equipment; safety devices were removed because they slowed production; and when breakdowns occurred ‘running repairs’ were made without ever getting to the root cause of the problems.

“Employees were inadequately trained and felt in genuine fear for their safety at the site. The view was taken that production should be maintained at all costs.

“This lethal combination all came together on 11 January 2011, resulting in the tragic death of Michael Whinfrey and a colleague receiving life-changing injuries. Other employees and members of the public were also put at risk.

“This terrible incident was entirely preventable. The clear standards and strict inspection regimes set out in the regulations were totally neglected by the company.”

Kevin Goss, 57, a former maintenance manager, Steven Weaver, 38, former operations manager, and Paul Greenwell, 51, former operations director, were all charged under section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. These charges were withdrawn during the trial. Mr Goss faced a further charge of perverting the course of justice, but was found not guilty.

Detective Sergeant Rob Platts, who led the investigation for South Yorkshire Police, said: “I am pleased with the verdict reached today as it recognises the systemic failings of a company who had a duty of care to its employees.

“The company was aware of a longstanding issue with the autoclave doors and made no effort to repair the problem properly, putting the lives of their employees at risk.

“Because of the company’s inexcusable neglect, a man lost his life in a completely avoidable incident.

“After nearly four long years, Mr Whinfrey’s family can finally begin to put this painful ordeal behind them and move forward with their lives. They finally have the truth about his death and I hope the verdict reached today brings them some small amount of peace.

In a statement released following the verdict, the long-term partner of Mr Whinfrey, Margaret Crofts, said: “On 11 of January 2011, my partner of 28 years, Michael Whinfrey, went to work never to return.

“Michael, a father to our three children, was a hard working man who loved and cared for all his family and friends. Since this day, there has been a huge hole in all our lives.

“I have had to cope on a daily basis of not knowing or understanding what actually happened to Michael on the 11th January 2011.

“With this guilty verdict now in, I know that through the negligence and incompetence of Sterecycle the company, Michael, through no fault of his own, was unlawfully killed.

“I wish to thank South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive for carrying out a thorough investigation into this matter and also the CPS for continuing with the prosecution even though the company had entered administration.

“I respectfully request we are now left alone as a family to continue our grieving in private."

Kingsley Napley partner and health and safety law expert Jonathan Grimes said that convictions have been in short supply since the legislation entered the statute books. “As with previous cases, this company (Sterecycle) was relatively small in size with only around 50 employees,” he said. “It remains to be seen if either the legislation, or those tasked with enforcing it, will be effective in dealing with larger companies with more layers of management.

“That said, one interesting feature of this case is that the prosecution relied not on the specified acts of individuals, but on the aggregation of failures throughout the company. This is a basis for prosecution that would not have been possible prior to the passing of this act.

“Previously the ‘identification principle’ required individual gross negligence by someone in a senior position in the company to be proven for the gross negligence of the company to be established – the reason for the failed prosecutions of companies in cases like the Hatfield Rail disaster, and the Herald of Free Enterprise case. This case does therefore show that in the right cases management failures causing death, even in the largest companies, could form the basis for a successful corporate manslaughter prosecution.”

 

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