LOGISTICS company DHL has been fined £2.6million for health and safety breaches after an employee at its Coventry tyre distribution centre was killed in an avoidable accident.
Robert Baynham was crushed when a stack of tyre stillages toppled and two of them fell through the roof of the office where he and three colleagues who were also injured were working.
Following an investigation, DHL Services Ltd pleaded guilty to failing to carry out a risk assessment and failing to ensure the safety of employees.
And at Warwick Crown Court, the company was fined £2.6 million for what Mr Justice Jeremy Baker described as its ‘serious corporate failure.’
Prosecutor Bernard Thorogood said the charges followed a tragic incident at DHL’s tyre distribution centre on the Prologis business park in Coventry overnight on February 2, 2016.
He explained that the premises was principally used for the bulk storage and distribution of Bridgestone tyres.
But it also handled what were referred to as ‘cross-stocked’ tyres – which would come in from other manufacturers to be shipped out again, usually the same night.
Those would be stored on a temporary basis away from the bulk storage area used for the Bridgestone tyres.
Mr Thorogood said the tyres were held in stillages, metal frames, in which tyres of different types were contained, with some of them being much heavier than others.
In the early hours of February 2 a ‘tall and heavy stack’ of eight cross-stocked stillages had been placed next to an office in which Mr Baynham, John Knight, Bernard Halpin and Jason Gordon were working.
“The risks of forming stacks of stillages are obvious, and the company knew of previous topples. Past events showed this is a well-established risk and should have been factored into the defendant company’s consideration.”
But when the stack toppled, possibly after being knocked as a second stack was being put next to it, the top two stillages, each of which weighed 578 kilos, fell through the office roof.
“An error is always possible and the potential for disaster from a small error of judgement is manifest if the stacks are too close. All four individuals in the office were at serious risk of losing their lives.”
Mr Thorogood said there was no guidance that different stillages should not be mixed – but Bridgestone had indicated for its tyres that if they were, the heaviest should be at the bottom.
Fifty-year-old Mr Baynham suffered multiple injuries from which he died after being rushed to hospital.
Mr Knight, aged 35, suffered three fractures to his skull, a bleed to his brain, eight fractured ribs, a fractured collarbone and sternum, and was in hospital for two weeks.
The other two men suffered less serious injuries, and were discharged after treatment, but have suffered ongoing effects as a result of what happened.
Mr Thorogood said that after taking over the warehouse in October 2015, having previously operated there until 2009, DHL had ‘failed to conduct its own risk assessment and failed to discharge its health and safety duties.’
And it was suggested their focus was on ‘product movement rather than health and safety.’
Fining DHL Services Ltd, Mr Justice Baker said: “The immediate cause of the stack toppling over is unclear, but not only was it comprised of different sizes of tyres, the handling driver was in the process of constructing a similar stack which may have led to some contact with it.
“DHL has sought to personalise the acceptance of fault on its behalf. However, although such contention may be correct in this case, this does not deflect from DHL’s corporate responsibility to make a risk assessment.
“Although there may have been an individualised failure to make a proper risk assessment, there was a corporate failure to do so.
“The cause and effect of those failures is that a stack containing an excessive number of stillages had been placed in an area where people were working.
“When the driver was in the process of making a new stack, contact with the first stack caused it to topple over and fall onto those working in the office.
“There is no question that these failures have led to a human tragedy. Robert Baynham was a family man, having met his wife of 30 years when they were teenagers. His death has deprived their children of their father.
“The defendant bore a high degree of culpability for these offences. There was a serious corporate failure to ensure that suitable assessments had been made prior to this incident.
“As at the date of the incident the defendant had failed to put into place measures which were recognised standards in the industry.
“There was no sufficiently safe system to prevent the stacking of stillages in the configuration and in the location as they were on that night. It is fortunate this type of incident in this location had not occurred sooner.”
And Mr Justice Baker pointed out that DHL, which he said had a £1.4 billion annual turnover, had two previous health and safety convictions in 2017 and 2018.
But he said: “I accept in this case there are features which reduce the seriousness of the offence or provide mitigation. Since the offence DHL has taken steps to remedy the situation.”
Coventry City Council environmental health officers undertook an investigation into the incident after being contacted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Councillor Christine Thomas, chair of the licensing and regulatory committee, said: “It’s important to reflect on the sad loss of life and injuries suffered and our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who have been affected by this tragic incident.
“I am really grateful for the efforts of environmental health officers from the council who were notified of the accident the same day and immediately began their detailed investigations. This is the largest and most complex case that safety officers have had to deal with.
“As a local authority we are responsible for enforcing health and safety at work legislation in warehouses such as this one, and it is a responsibility our officers take very seriously.”