A specialist turf company was today (9 July) sentenced for a catalogue of safety failings that led to the death of a 30-year-old employee and father of two.
Lee Woodhouse, of Wilberfoss, died from serious crush injuries when he was struck and then run over by a 27-tonne turf harvester that he had been using in a field off Feoffee Common Lane in Barnby Moor, East Yorkshire.
The incident, on 20 September 2011, was investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which prosecuted Turfgrass Services International Ltd., trading as Inturf, after finding a key safety system on the machine had been deliberately bypassed.
Hull Crown Court was told Mr Woodhouse, who had worked for Inturf for a year, had been using the turf harvester during the morning but had been having technical problems with the operation of the machine.
Later that afternoon, a nearby resident heard a constant noise in the field and saw the machine had stopped against a tree with its wheels still in motion, churning up mud, but there was no driver. He called 999.
Soon after, a co-worker in another field went to investigate after realising the vehicle had not been returned to base. He went into the field and saw Mr Woodhouse on the ground. Paramedics attended but Mr Woodhouse had died at the scene. It was clear he had been run over by the harvester and fatally injured.
HSE’s investigation concluded he had been run over while walking alongside the machine to observe or adjust the operation of the cut-off mechanism at the front end that he had been having a problem with earlier that day.
After he had been hit, the harvester continued to run and was only stopped when it struck the tree.
HSE said a key finding was that a wire link had been put across the terminals of a relay switch. This defeated a number of safety features on the harvester including, crucially, the cut-off switch attached to the driver’s seat designed to cut the operation of the harvesting machinery if the driver was not sitting in the seat.
The harvester had been operated with the safety features disabled since 2009. Further investigation revealed that the safety features on another turf cutting machine being used by the same company had also been deliberately defeated in 2011.
HSE also found the company failed to:
identify the risks of operating harvesting machines
implement safe systems of work regarding maintenance and inspection
train machine operators and their supervisors properly
protect employees from access to dangerous parts of the machines, and,
make sure the harvesters were maintained safely and checked regularly.
Turfgrass Services International Ltd, trading as Inturf, of The Chestnuts, Wilberfoss, York, was fined £67,000 and ordered to pay £33,000 in costs for a breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company admitted the offence at an earlier hearing.
After the sentencing, HSE Inspector Andrea Jones said:
“This was a tragic incident that has had devastating, and life-changing effects, on the whole family, particularly Lee’s wife, two small children and his parents. The incident was entirely preventable.
“Agricultural machines are inherently dangerous and this turf harvesting machine had a number of safety features to protect operators. The seat switch should have stopped the harvesting machinery when the operator leaves the seat. Had the vital seat switch not been disabled, there would have been no reason for Mr Woodhouse to have been observing the cutters at the front of the machine whilst it continued to move forwards in the field.
“It is essential that all employers with machines for use on farms and in the turf-cutting industry put systems in place for checking all safety guarding regularly, and provide training and supervision to make sure machines are not operated with missing or defeated safety functions. All operators must be trained in safe systems of work in relation to making adjustments and clearing blockages in machines.
“Agriculture has the second highest rate of deaths of all work sectors. In the last ten years, almost one person a week has been killed as a direct result of agricultural work.
“Life will never be the same again for family members left behind after a work-related death. And in the case of Lee Woodhouse, two young children will now have to grow up without their dad.”
The family of Lee Woodhouse said:
“The death of Lee has left a huge vacuum in all our lives. He was full of life, sincere, helpful and a loving family man, very involved in all aspects of family life.
“He is deeply missed. Lee’s life centered around his family, friends and his job and our family has been left devastated by his tragic loss.”