Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions was prosecuted after the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) found that workers at the company were exposed to hand-arm vibration between 2002 and 2011, putting at risk of developing hand-arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).
Sheffield Crown Court heard that workers at the company’s sites were regularly exposed to hand-arm vibration while operating hand-held power tools such as hydraulic breakers and floor saws. An investigation carried out by HSE found that the company failed in its legal duty to ensure the risks to workers who used these tools was kept to as low a level as reasonably practicable. Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions failed to assess the risk to workers’ health, failed to put in place and monitor suitable risk control measures and failed to put in place a suitable system of health surveillance.
The company also failed to report to the enforcing authorities a significant number of cases of employees diagnosed with HAVS as was legally required.
HAVS, sometimes called whitefinger, is a permanent and debilitating condition affecting the nerves and blood vessels of the hand. It can cause pain, tingling and numbness, making it difficult to carry out everyday tasks such as gripping and lifting objects, fastening buttons and zips, using a knife and fork or using a tooth brush. In some cases, the hands can have a continuous feeling of wearing mittens. Hobbies such as fishing or gardening become impossible to do. Symptoms are often worse in cold weather. The condition can render a worker disabled, affecting their chances of employment.
Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd of Thorncliffe Park, Chapeltown, Sheffield pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2 (1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The company also pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 5 (1) of the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 1995. The company was fined £500,000 and was ordered to pay costs of £195,000.
HSE inspector Christine Mellor said after the hearing: “This case was about failing to protect workers. Exposure to hand-arm vibration is a well-known risk which Balfour Beatty Utility Solutions Ltd failed to adequately control. The company failed to heed warnings. Early health surveillance detected ill health but still this was not acted upon to prevent on-going exposure.
“This is a particularly serious case because of the extent and duration of failures. The breaches were repeated over several years and this resulted in persistent poor compliance.”
A spokesperson for Balfour Beatty said after sentencing: “The shortcomings in processes identified in this case took place many years ago and were addressed prior to the start of the investigation by the HSE. The judge acknowledged both this and that there was no evidence of anyone coming to harm as a result. Balfour Beatty takes its responsibilities both for health and safety extremely seriously.”