Wrexham Council fined £150,000 for health and safety breach

Wrexham Council has been fined £150,000 after it admitted failing to ensure workers using machinery were not affected by hand-arm vibration syndrome.

A district judge warned the starting point was £400,000 but said he had reduced it because of the council’s guilty plea and other factors.

District Judge Gwyn Jones said he had to query whether limited resources could be better used to ensure that it did not come back to court and he had decided on a £150,000 fine with agreed costs of £10,900 to the Health and Safety Executive.

The council had written policies in place but no adequate system to ensure the policies were carried out on the ground.

The judge said it was a significant failure which ran from 2011 to 2016.

He congratulated chief executive Helen Patterson and other senior officials for attending court, but commented that none of the elected councillors, including those with health and safety responsibilities at the time – or now – had attended.

The judge said it was appreciated any fine would have a significant impact on the local authority.

Those in charge including the elected members had to understand that health and safety was a matter that had to be taken seriously.

Judge Jones, who had the power to impose an unlimited fine, said that he took into account the council’s revenue budget of £224m but the bulk of its spending was on services which were not impacted by the offence.

The council had a responsibility to assess levels of risk and to carry out procedures to reduce or eliminate them from the use of such machinery as lawn mowers, strimmers and leaf blowers.

It had recognised its duty as far back as 2011.

And the judge said that while it was quite clear detailed policies were in place, they had not been put into practice.

While some work had been done, it was inadequate. But steps had since been taken to remedy matters.

Prosecuting barrister Jonathan Rogers, for the HSE, said that if the council had followed its own policies, it would have done a good job.

It said the risk should have been assessed, work carried out to reduce or eliminate the risks, and training provided to employees.

 “They did not do any of that,” he alleged. “They knew what they needed to do. They wrote the policy but did not put it into operation.” 

They kept writing policies in 2004, 2006 and again in 2011. “They were updated but they never did anything,” he said.

Monitoring boxes were used sporadically and data collected but he said they were meaningless as they were not acted on.

A complaint from an affected worker in the parks department raised the issue and his manager referred the matter on.

But Mr Rogers claimed that when additional training was given, a dozen other people came forward.

The risks associated with vibration were well known and could have a profound effect on people, he said.

A system of work was needed to protect employees from suffering such injury.

He said “this state of affairs existed for about a decade”.

Employees were left to their own devices and he said the council failed to do what the regulations told them to.

He described it as “a serious and systematic” failure.

Jonathan Hart, defending, said that senior officials had taken the matter very seriously and stressed that lessons had been learned.

It was not an authority that had done nothing – it had taken action which the prosecution described as too little and not effective.

The HSE had advised the council back in 2011 on its policies and had signed them off, believed it all to “be hunky dory”.

It had not been appreciated quite how far the authority was failing as far as monitoring and training was concerned.

While the issue was crystallised in the Streetscene department it was accepted that it also affected other departments within the authority.

But tools were hired by private irms on occasions and they had carried out the necessary monitoring, he said.

It was his case that eight people, not 12, had been affected within an authority which employed more than 6,000 people providing the full range of serves in the county. They all continued to work for the council, he said.

The heavier the fine the greater the impact on “the shareholders”, who were the ratepayers of Wrexham, he warned.

AFTER the case, Wrexham Council’s chief executive Helen Paterson said the council fully accepted the court’s findings, sympathised with the individuals affected and regretted the circumstances which led to their exposure to developing  hand arm vibration syndrome.

“Since this issue came to the attention of the council, we have worked with the Health and Safety Executive to resolve the matter and have implemented their recommendations,” she said.

She said the HSE would be working with the authority in the coming months and years to ensure their continuing action plan was implemented as part of the longer term health and safety strategy.

Council leader Cllr Mark Pritchard issued a statement in which he said: “This matter pre-dates this administration by several years – but that does not mean that we are not taking it extremely seriously.”

He said health and safety practises had since been reviewed, lessons had been learned and he said he would like to thank all staff for their hard work “in addressing this unfortunate matter.”

The health and well-being of staff remained a priority, he said, and they would continue to maintain high standards.

“We are proud of our Welsh Government Gold corporate health standard status and we are working hard towards the Platinum standard,” he said.