Openreach Fined £1.34m after River Fatality

Family photo

The UK telecommunications giant Openreach has been fined £1.34m after one of its engineers was swept away by a flooded river.

Alun Owen died in October 2020 after being sent to work on a customer’s telephone line in the village of Abergwyngregyn near Bangor. The village had been flooded in the days before his death, after the River Aber burst its banks.

Openreach pleaded guilty at Llandudno Magistrates’ Court to breaching health and safety laws for staff working near water. Llandudno Magistrates’ Court heard how the 32-year-old father-of-two was called out to a customer’s home in the village after a fault was identified on lines crossing the river.

Mr Owen attempted to wade into the river to throw a new line to the other bank, with water up to his calves. But the court heard he slipped and was swept away. A huge search operation was launched, and the body of Mr Owen was found that evening, about 270 metres (0.16 miles) downstream.

An adjourned inquest heard Mr Owen, who was from Bethesda, Gwynedd, had died from drowning. The court was told that while Openreach had policies in place for working near water, they were not followed in this case. Nathan Cook, for the Health and Safety Executive, said no engineer should have been working alone near water, and specific safety procedures should have been agreed with managers. The court heard Mr Owen had also not taken an online training course about working on water.

Mr Owen’s wife Ceri told the court that her husband’s death was a “huge loss for everyone”. “The loss of Al had a huge impact on the whole family. It was very traumatic,” she said.

She said her health had suffered, with panic attacks and weight loss. She said her two daughters had separation anxiety and wanted to know where she was. “They get very worried that something might happen to me as happened to their father,” she said.

“Our family will never be the same.”

A statement on behalf of Mr Owen’s mother Cathy was read out by his sister, Lowri Owen.

“Losing Al has changed me as a person. I think of him every single moment of every single day,” she said. “I am and always will be heartbroken.” Dominic Kay KC, for Openreach, said the company wanted to express its “genuine and sincere remorse for what happened”.

He also said that apology came from the chief executive of Openreach, Clive Selley. In a statement, Mr Selley also apologised for failings after the death of Mr Owen, including withdrawing a staff discount for the family’s broadband services because Mr Owen no longer worked for Openreach. In another incident, the company used a wedding picture of Mr Owen as part of a case study in new health and safety training, without seeking permission from the family.

“I am deeply saddened that Openreach added to the grief and suffering,” said Mr Selley.

District Judge Gwyn Jones said the level of fine needed to have a real economic impact on the company, so health and safety was not seen as an optional add-on. He said he recognised that there were mitigating factors, including a guilty plea, and remorse shown by the company. He ordered Openreach to pay a fine of £1.34m and costs of £15,858.

He added: “The punishment will not take away the pain or trauma suffered by the family of Alun Owen.”

Speaking after the court hearing, Mr Owen’s family said no financial penalty would give them “any sense of justice”. “The fine imposed is inconsequential and does not diminish the pain, nor does it lessen the void that has been left since Al was taken away from us,” they said in a statement read outside the court. “There was never any doubt that Openreach was entirely culpable for causing Al’s death – a death that was preventable and a death that resulted in the loss of a precious and cherished member of the family, who was also dearly treasured by his wide circle of friends.”

The family said it felt the company had displayed “a lethargic approach” to training and equipment for those working near water.

“We recognise that Openreach has now been forced to address some of their health and safety inadequacies, hopefully ensuring that no other family endures the pain and distress that has been caused by Al’s death,” they added.

Openreach admitted it “could have done more” to make sure engineers had the right guidance, processes, and training when working on, or near water.