Friday, March 16, 2012

Death on the Docks CAMPAIGNERS made sure Simon Jones was not forgotten.

ON the morning of April 24, 1998, a young man called Simon Jones went in to work on his first day at Shoreham dock, in Sussex.

Within a few hours he was dead, his head crushed by a crane grab.

Taking a year out from Sussex University, Simon, 24, was under pressure from the job centre to take any job going, and fearing his benefit would be stopped otherwise, he took the work unloading a ship at Euromin's Shoreham dock, through an employment agency called Personnel Selection. He had no previous experience or training for dock work. The agency should have checked the job was safe for him. Evidently they didn't.

On his first and last day at the dock Simon was employed in unloading bags of building stones and loose aggregate from the hold of a Polish ship. His job was to attach the bags of stones to chains hanging from the underside of the clam-shaped grab, which was open. He was killed when the lever that operated the jaws of the grab got caught in the clothing of the crane operator, causing the jaws to close.

It happened at 10.15 am. The jaws of the grab closed over Simon's head and neck, fracturing his skull and decapitating him. The other worker nearby just heard a noise and turned to see blood coming from the grab. He was asked to hose the blood off the stones before they resumed unloading.

The crane driver had been unable to see inside the hold. Instead of an experienced hatchman to communicate betweeen crane driver and hold there was just a Polish crew member who didn't speak English. There were instructions in the crane cab that no one should be working in the area under the grab. These were ignored, and Simon Jones, who was not to know, was ordered to work under it. But then the grab itself should not have been in use. Only removing it so the chains could be attached directly to a crane hook would have taken time.

Ten weeks before the accident Mr Richard Martell, Euromin's manager at Shoreham, ordered staff to weld hooks to the inside of the clam-shaped grab, so that instead of stopping work to change the excavator attachment, the hooks could be used with the jaws of the grab open.

"Simon Jones was placed beneath and at times between the jaws of that grab," prosecutor Mr Patrick O'Connor said. "He was placed in danger of his life because the grab weighs over two tonnes and closes silently and quickly in about two seconds".

The bitter irony is that although Simon Jones had never done dock work before, he did know something about casualisation. He had been involved in campaigning for support to the Liverpool dockers who were in struggle against its effects in that port, union men sacked for refusing to cross a picket line, and replaced by agency workers.

The case of Simon Jones' death only came to court in 2001 after a determined and energetic campaign by his friends and family, ranging from occupying cranes to getting questions raised in parliament.

Even then, after a promising start, general manager Richard James Martell and Euromin were cleared of manslaughter, and Euromin was just found guilty of two crimes relating to health and safety, and fined £50,000.

Simon's friends and family did not let things drop. In his memory they joined with others campaigning for better protection of workers' lives and adequate measures against corporate manslaughter.

So how do things stand in 2012, when we have had time to learn from what happened to Simon?

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 we all know the government is cutting back on HSE inspections. And the docks have been designated a ‘low risk’ workplace, so 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.

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's workplace safety guidelines 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.”

Warning that dock regulations are "up for the chop", Hazards magazine points out that

"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 2011 Peter 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 2012 Tim 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.

If those five men had died in Afghanistan they might have made TV news, and headlines, and been mentioned not only in despatches but politician's speeches. As it is they may not have even made statistics. An official told Hazards they only knew of one death on the docks in 2011-12, whereas the magazine found five between October and January. Is this a sign of worse to come?

It is time the government and chancer bosses were put in the dock, in one sense or another.

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