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Dungannon building firm fined £50k over death of worker Phillip Fenwick

By George Jackson

Dungannon firm Mid Ulster Contracts Limited has been fined £50,000 at Londonderry Crown Court for health and safety failings which led to the death of an employee.

It comes after a Health and Safety Executive for Northern Ireland (HSENI) investigation into an incident at a construction site at Culmore Road in Londonderry on 6 November 2014.

Mr Phillip Fenwick was assisting in a lifting operation of a roof trust, which was being hoisted by its apex using a homemade lifting accessory. 

During this operation Mr Fenwick was struck on the head by the roof truss, sustaining a fractured skull and tragically died the following day from his injury.

The construction company working on the £1,528,000 contract at the private nursing home, Mid Ulster Contracts Limited from Coolmaghry Road in Dungannon, admitted four breaches of health and safety legislation.

Its sole director, Nigel Johnston, was given 12 months to pay the £50,000 fine.

Judge Gemma Loughran told Mr Fenwick's partner and members of his family who were in court that the fine was not a reflection of the value of the deceased's life.

That she said would be an impossible task.

She said because of the defendant's failure to implement health and safety steps on the day of the tragic accident, a foreseeable accident had resulted in catastrophic consequences for Mr Fenwick and for his partner and family.

"I just want to say to them that the court is very conscious of the pain they have experienced and will continue to experience. Nothing I can do in court today can in any way address the loss they have suffered", she said.

A prosecution barrister told the court that Mr Fenwick was involved in assisting to lift roof trusses on to a crane.  During the procedure the site's acting foreman temporarily suspended the operation to inspect the exact location for a truss. The truss was left suspending by a strap to a make shift device but without warning it swung and struck Mr Fenwick on the back of the head. Another worker had to duck out of the way of the swinging truss. Judge Loughran said if he had not done so there could well have been a second fatality.

The seven month long contract had two months to run when the accident occurred. Because of the gusting winds on the day Mr Johnston instructed the workmen to work only indoors but he failed to ensure that his instructions were followed.

The barrister said 12 other trusses had been lifted before the accident and he described the make-shift device made by the acting foreman as primitive. He said immediately after the accident Mr Fenwick was rushed to Altnagelvin Hospital. He was "deeply unconscious" and his condition quickly deteriorated. CT scans disclosed critical skull injuries as well as chest injuries and "Mr Fenwick's injuries were not amenable to surgery".

He died at 5.30 am the following day.

The barrister said at the time of the fatality measures in terms of training and safety of site workers was inappropriate. he said the defendant failed to ensure the proper safety for employees and he said the lifting procedure for the roof trusses was not planned by a competent person.

"Health and safety steps were taken albeit they were inadequate. Appropriate systems were not implemented and adhered to", he said. The barrister added that there was no evidence of cost cutting measures by the defendant which impacted on health and safety issues.

Defence barrister Mark Mulholland QC said the defendant wished to apologise to Mr Fenwick's family. He said he accepted the roof truss should not have been left dangling.

"The men were told on the day not to take the lifting job on but the company failed to ensure those instructions were followed and therefore the company was responsible for the tragedy", he said.

"It was a tragic accident from which the company has learned very salient lessons. This is not a case of a fly by night cowboy company", he said.

Mr Mulholland said that the defendant felt deeply about the tragedy, which also had financial consequences for him.

"Financially he is now a man of straw. He has had an incremental rise in insurance premiums because of the accident", he said.

The defence barrister said Mr Johnston had £37,000 owned to him by debtors and he might require litigation to recover the monies owed to him. He said Mr Johnston, a father of three, now had a modest income and had a mortgage of £120,000.

Imposing the £50,000 fine, Judge Loughran said the defendant had failed in his duty in respect of the health and safety of his employees.

"This is not a case of corporate manslaughter", she said.

"It was a complex lifting operation and it is fortunate that there was not a second fatality", she added.

Speaking after the hearing Mr Jonathan Knox, an Inspector with HSENI’s Major Investigation Team, said: “My thoughts today are very much with Phillip Fenwick’s family circle.

“Lifting operations can often put people at great risk of injury and sadly, as in this case, can lead to death.  It is essential therefore that employers ensure that any lifting operation is appropriately resourced, properly planned and organised by a competent person,  to ensure that it is carried out in a safe manner.”

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