Spate of dock work deaths exposes official 'low risk' folly
Dock work has been declared low risk. Preventive Health and Safety Executive inspections have been stopped. The docks regulations are up for the chop. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill asks if the docks are so safe, how come the death rate last year was several times the national average?
Safety in the dock Hazards issue 117 January-March 2012
On 31 January 2012, Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors issued an immediate stop work notice at Berth 2 of the Humber International Terminal, effectively bringing all activity at the dock to a halt. According to HSE, this type of prohibition notice is a big deal, and can only be issued where there is “risk of serious personal injury.”
But it was just a matter of chance HSE inspectors saw this imminent and serious risk. As a designated ‘low risk’ workplace, HSE inspectors shouldn’t have been anywhere near the dock. They caught a glimpse of the potentially deadly practices as they made their way to investigate a dock worker fatality that had occurred at the terminal the Friday before.
Death on the docks
If the ‘low risk’ dock industry was an average UK workplace, you’d expect no more than one death every year or two. It’s currently killing at a rate closer to one a month. Here’s just some of the recent fatalities.
23 October 2011 Dock worker Ian Campbell, 45, was killed when the straddler crane he was driving toppled at Tilbury Docks.
26 October 2011Peter Hunt, 68, an agency lorry driver working for Meachers Global Logistics, was killed at a distribution centre at Tilbury Docks when a trailer fell on him.
8 December 2011 Marine engineer Jason Burden, 19, suffered fatal chest injuries when a piece of machinery fell on him as he worked for Wear Dock and Engineering Company at South Docks in Sunderland.
16 December 2011 Dock worker Neville Wightman, 52, died of injuries sustained at Ipswich Dock when he was crushed by part of a pontoon during an unloading operation.
27 January 2012Tim Elton, 28, an agency worker working for Grimsby and Immingham Stevedores, was killed when he was buried under shifting coal in the hold of a ship at Immingham Dock.
“It was a defect that was identified while the inspectors were on their way to the incident scene that warranted immediate action,” an HSE spokesperson confirmed.
Agency worker Tim Elton, 28, was working in the hull of the MV Excalibur “trimming coal” – manually pulling it down at the edge of the hold – when the coal moved, burying him.
One workmate told a local newspaper: “It came over the radio that there had been a fatality and everyone stopped working. Workers were trying to dig him out with their hands and then they tried using an excavator as well. The atmosphere down there was just horrible.”
Unite, the union covering dock workers, had raised concerns about excessive agency worker hours at the dock. It is understood the dead man had recently worked 26 straight night shifts without a break.
The dock industry is small but economically important. Several million vehicles and trailers shift over 500 million tonnes of freight every year through UK ports. Government figures suggest over 58,000 people are directly employed in the industry. Add in port-related jobs, seasonal employment and part-time work, and you get a total of about 200,000 port cargo and passenger operations related UK jobs.
HSE says obtaining statistics on injury rates in ports is problematic because of difficulties “coding” jobs, but believes the rate is “above the national all-industry average.”
And how. To be in line with the 2010/11 national fatality rate of 0.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, docks should experience no more than one death a year. In recent months, the industry has had a fatality rate of around one a month. Depending on which employment figure you use, the last year’s death total means docks are running at a fatality rate of at least five times and possibly over 20 times the UK average.
HSE’s difficulties with its figures, though, mean it is statistically oblivious to the carnage. The deaths are there – it’s just HSE doesn’t know they are there.
How low can you get?
Dock work can kill you, but that doesn’t mean the government thinks it is worth policing by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) March 2011 strategy document, Good health and safety, good for everyone, classifies docks as one of the “lower risk areas where proactive inspection will no longer take place.”
The government workplace safety blueprint, which provides the framework for HSE’s enforcement policy, notes: “These areas include low risk manufacturing (eg. textiles, clothing, footwear, light engineering, electrical engineering), the transport sector (eg. air, road haulage and docks), local authority administered education provision, electricity generation and the postal and courier services.”
Tilbury Docks killed two workers in three days in October 2011. Deaths nationwide in the industry are running at several times the all-industry average.
In a 22 February 2012 response to questions from Hazards, an HSE spokesperson said: “There have been two fatalities in water transport (based on SIC) since 1/4/2011, details of both appear on the HSE website.” The word “dock” appears nowhere at all in the listing. And the only worker death identifiable as dock-related is that of Ian Campbell at Tilbury Docks, listed as a “service” sector death occurring in “other supporting water transport activities”.
The death of Robert Fidoe, aged 12, is the other dock-related death visible to HSE. Robert’s death, after he fell from his bike into a British Waterways canal lock in Stourport, is classified as a service sector death concerning a member of the public in “service activities incidental to water transportation.”
The watchdog subsequently admitted its figures exclude deaths in cargo handling, one of the most deadly jobs in the ports, because the coding problems mean it can’t separate out the dock-related cargo handling fatalities from those in air and road transport. Still, Hazards had little difficulty identifying five dock work deaths, all in jobs enforced by HSE, in the 13 weeks from 23 October 2011 alone.
Unbeknown to HSE, at least three other deaths on the docks do appear in its 2011/2012 fatalities list, which as of 27 February 2012 only included deaths up to the end of 2011. But one is classified as a “service” sector death and the other two are classified as deaths in “manufacturing”.
Peter Hunt’s death at Tilbury Docks is listed as a service sector death while undertaking “temporary employment agency activities”. Jason Burden’s death, while working for Wear Dock and Engineering Company at South Docks in Sunderland, is classified as “manufacture of other fabricated metal products n.e.c.” Neville Wightman’s death during unloading operations at Ipswich Docks is classified as “bldg ships/floating structure”.
Unite believes it can identify at least eight deaths in the last year. And there are others, but they don’t appear in HSE’s statistics because some fall under the remit of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Shuffling the deaths into a series of different industry columns – water transport, cargo handling, service sector, manufacturing – and then amplifying the effect by splitting the casualties across different enforcing agencies so they don’t all appear in a single annual body count, means a shockingly deadly industry can appear relatively benign.
HSE’s inability to recognise deaths on the docks is not just a statistical oddity. If HSE cannot even identify dock-related fatalities in its own published figures, this casts serious doubt on the rationale underpinning its current hands-off approach to dock safety.
Unions believe moves are afoot to make a bad situation worse. A draft HSE strategy document for the ports and logistics sector, circulated in February 2012, was described as “poor” by one union source. But it comes as the dock industry, designated ‘low risk’ by HSE, is already at the neglected fringes of HSE’s oversight.
BIG BUSINESS Over 6 million goods vehicles and trailers, transporting over 500 million tonnes of freight, pass through UK ports each year. But an HSE inspector will only pass through if something goes very badly wrong – just one in 10 major injuries on the docks in 2010/11 was investigated.
And HSE sources have indicated unofficially toHazards that the Dock Regulations 1988, which unions believe place essential, thorough and specific requirements on a very different type of industry, are to be included in the next tranche of laws to be scrapped under the government’s plan to halve the number of health and safety regulations [see: Mad Men].
In an official response, an HSE spokesperson confirmed to Hazards that HSE has “been considering its legislation (including the Docks Regulations) in the context of government initiatives such as the Red Tape Challenge.” He added there have been “preliminary informal discussions… about possible revocation.”
The law becomes irrelevant if there is no-one to police it. Provisional HSE statistics for 2010/11 record 69 major injuries to employees in “water transport,” excluding cargo handling. But figures obtained by Hazards reveal only 7 – just one in 10 – were investigated by HSE. Five years ago, in 2006/07, HSE investigated 18 per cent of fatal and major injuries in the sector. By 2010/11, the official figures obtained by Hazardsreveal, this had fallen to just 9 per cent.
Water transport fatal and major injuries investigated by HSE
Notes: The figures are for HSE investigations of fatal and major injuries to employees, the self-employed and members of the public in the water transport industry.
The safety watchdog only took docks-related enforcement action on a handful of occasions last year. An HSE document, Statistics report for the Ports Industry 2010/11p (provisional), reveals HSE issued 20 enforcement notices in 2009/10, but this fell to just 7 enforcement notices in 2010/11. In recent years, the number of dock-related prosecutions taken each year by HSE can be counted on one hand. But then, if under its new ‘low risk’ strategy HSE is not to go looking for problems, it’s not going to find the evidence of criminal activity.
According to Andy Green, the Unite convenor at Tilbury Docks and a member of the union’s national executive, the consequence of the government’s decision in 2011 to reclassify docks as low risk “was fewer inspections and less enforcement action, and predictably the downward spiral of poor health and safety began. Except bad health and safety didn’t so much begin to fall in the industry, it’s plummeted.”
Among the casualties was Unite rep Ian Campbell, one of two fatalities at Tilbury Docks in October 2011. HSE initially rebuffed a Unite call to be involved in the investigation, commenting: “As this is a criminal investigation, trade union safety representatives have no statutory role, but they will be interviewed by HSE's inspectors in the course of their enquiries.” The company too tried to freeze out the union, claiming “legal privilege due to the possibility of corporate manslaughter.” All workplace injuries are potential crimes, but injury investigation is also a core trade union and an explicit, legal, trade union safety rep function.
DEADLY NEGLECT Andy Green (right) says safety standards on the docks have “plummeted” since HSE designated the industry ‘low risk’. The Unite convenor at Tilbury Docks, pictured with Unite safety rep Martyn Allen and Ian Campbell’s widow, Caroline, says the move is “bordering on criminal negligence.”
Commenting after Ian Campbell’s death, Unite national officer for docks, Julia Long, called for health and safety action across all ports to reflect the dangers in the industry. She said: “The government has set the ports as a 'low risk' industry. This tragic incident shows that the government needs to have a rethink on its position.”
Unite’s Andy Green believes the decision to sideline docks safety came in response to industry whispers in the government’s ear. “Our view is that the industry has been lobbying hard behind the scenes. These tragic losses of life will be swept under the carpet if we let them, and the industry will attempt to continue with its deregulatory strategy.
“We intend to expose the dock industry as a lethal environment which requires strict regulation and an HSE inspection and enforcement regime if we are to stem the loss of life in our docks and waterways.” He added: “Docks are a high risk industry, that’s not a slanderous remark or a criticism, it’s a fact. The workers within the industry need high health and safety standards, standards with teeth. The industry needs the HSE to undertake a high level of inspection and when needed enforcement.
“Categorising the dock industry as low risk is bordering on criminal negligence; docks are death traps and should be treated with the respect they deserve. It’s time the industry and the government faced the facts.”
The high price of HSE’s low risk strategy
Caroline Campbell lost her “rock” and the father of her twin daughters when Ian Campbell was killed at Tilbury Docks in October 2011. The 45-year-old was driving a straddle carrier, a type of crane, when it overturned. “Ian and I had been together for 20 years and married for 17-and-a-half years,” she told her local paper. “Even though I was only 19 when we met I knew within the first month together that I wanted to be his wife and I would love him for ever. He wasn’t only my husband, he was my best friend, my rock.”
Caroline said Ian, who was a well-liked Unite union representative at the docks, “had a way of making people feel at ease and he would bring out the best in people. Our children, our nieces and nephews and our friends’ children adored him.” She added: “Ian was one of life’s great helpers. If you needed anything Ian was there to help even if it was just a chat on the phone for some advice and support. The loss of Ian has left a gap in so many lives and a huge gap in our family. He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him.”
Unite's national officer for docks, Julia Long, said: “Unite will leave no stone unturned in its efforts to understand how this terrible accident was able to happen.” The union, which has linked up with Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK), is working with Caroline on a ‘Justice for Ian Campbell’ campaign.
Dock work has been declared low risk. Preventive Health and Safety Executive inspections have been stopped. The docks regulations are up for the chop. Hazards asks if the docks are so safe, how come the death rate last year was several times the national average?
LOW BLOW How could ports, which HSE concedes have an above average injury rate and hazards from massive loads, giant machines, confined spaces and work at the water’s edge, be low risk? Deaths in 2011/2012 are running at several times the all-industry rate.
DISAPPEARING BODIES HSE toldHazards it knows of only one dock worker killed at work in 2011/12.Hazards identified five docks deaths between 23 October 2011 and 27 January 2012 alone. See: Death on the docks
UNION WARNING Unite convenor Andy Green gives a stark warning about the dangers of deregulation on the docks. See: Dock deaths