A waste management firm has incurred fines totalling £3 million as a result of the tragic deaths of two employees in separate incidents. Michael Atkin and Mark Wheatley lost their lives in 2019 and 2020, respectively, leading to immense grief for their families.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) conducted investigations into both incidents and subsequently prosecuted Valencia Waste Management Limited, formerly known as Viridor Waste Management Limited.
Michael, a resident of Wetherby, met his unfortunate end while collecting a load of wastepaper bales at Valencia Waste Management Limited’s Grendon Road site in Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, on 10 October 2019. The 63-year-old, an HGV driver employed by RT Keedwell, had been working alongside a Valencia Waste Management employee, who was using a forklift truck to load Michael’s lorry with rows of bales.
During the process of loading the fourth row, some bales from the third row became dislodged and fell off the lorry, resulting in a fatal accident that crushed Michael. It appears that Michael had been securing the other bales onto the lorry before the incident occurred. Each bale weighed at least 820kg.
Janet Atkin, Michael’s partner, expressed her grief, saying, “Since the loss of Michael, it has left an enormous hole in my life. Four years later, I’m still traumatised, and I don’t sleep well.”
An HSE investigation found that it was not standard practice at Valencia Waste Management Limited’s Earls Barton site for forklift truck operators to load bales onto lorries while the lorry driver was simultaneously securing previously loaded bales. There were systems in place for drivers to remain in their cabs or in a safe location away from the loading activity, but these protocols were not followed at the time of the incident.
Mark Wheatley met a similar tragic fate on 17 January 2020 at the Dartmoor National Park Conservation Works depot in Bovey Tracey, Devon. The 31-year-old, originally from Sutton Coldfield but living in Teignbridge, Devon, was an agency worker on his second week.
Mark was operating a lorry to lift two skips simultaneously using a method known as ‘hot swapping.’ However, the skips were incompatible in size and fell at an angle onto the back of Mark’s lorry. In an attempt to rectify the situation, Mark climbed onto the lorry bed, but the skips overbalanced and fatally struck him.
John and Sue Wheatley, Mark’s parents, arrived at the scene after receiving a call from their son requesting help. Sue shared in a statement presented to the court, “Every single night, as soon as I close my eyes, I see Mark lying crushed underneath the skip, dead or dying. When we arrived at the scene, we were held back by the police, so I couldn’t get close to him and couldn’t tell if he was dead or alive.”
Keeley Martin, Mark’s partner, added in her victim personal statement, “To say Mark was my soulmate really is an understatement. He really was the kindest, most caring man anyone could have the pleasure of meeting. The day he was taken, he took a part of me with him. I, nor anyone who knew him, will ever be the same again.”
The HSE investigation into this incident found that Valencia Waste Management Limited had failed to conduct a suitable and sufficient risk assessment for skip operations. This resulted in the absence of safe work systems, appropriate training, and proper maintenance of the skips. Additionally, the skips lacked clear size labeling.
It is noteworthy that the transport and waste and recycling industries continue to experience workplace fatalities, with 21 deaths recorded across these sectors in 2022/23.
In response to the incident on 10 October 2019, Valencia Waste Management Limited, located at London Road, Stretton-on-Dunsmore, Warwickshire, admitted to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The company was fined £1 million at Loughborough Magistrates’ Court on 6 September 2023.
Regarding the incident on 17 January 2020, Valencia Waste Management Limited pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The company was fined £2 million at Loughborough Magistrates’ Court on 6 September 2023. Additionally, the company was ordered to pay combined costs of £21,054.
Alan Hughes, senior enforcement lawyer at HSE, remarked, “These were two men at different stages of their lives, but the grief and pain across both families is devastating. Both deaths were avoidable. More needs to be done to make the use of vehicles on waste and recycling sites safer. We have a wealth of advice and guidance freely available.”
This HSE prosecution was supported by HSE inspectors James Collins and Nicholas Moreby.