A Co Antrim building firm has been fined £22,500 for a health and safety breach which resulted in the death of an employee.
G&J Crothers, which is based on the Tildarg Road in Doagh, was also ordered to pay costs of £1,500 after it admitted a single charge of failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of an employee.
Michael Beston, a 39-year-old father of two, died a week after falling through the roof of an agricultural building he was working on on June 29, 2013.
Appearing at Belfast Crown Court on behalf of the firm was James Crothers, who was on site when the fatal incident occurred.
Through the company’s barrister, G&J Crothers – which is run by James and his father – issued an apology for the death of an employee who was viewed as both a valued member of staff and a personal friend of the Crothers family.
Crown prosecutor Kate McKay said that on the day of the incident Mr Beston, James Crothers and a third employee were working on the roof of a building on the Colin Road in Ballyclare. The building had previously been used to house livestock but was being converted to facilitate a martial arts class.
The company had already provided a concrete floor and were removing and replacing sheets of corrugated iron on the roof in a bid to close gaps to ensure the roof was waterproof.
The staff were using a roof ladder to work on the roof and Mr Beston – described in court as a “skilled labourer” – stepped off the ladder and onto a sheet he had just removed nails from. He fell through the roof and on to the concrete floor – a distance of around four metres.
Mrs McKay told the court that while Mr Beston was initially conscious, mobile and able to talk, he appeared “very upset” and agitated which the Crown say was due to the severe head injury he sustained in the fall.
Mr Beston was rushed to Antrim Area Hospital but was later transferred to the Royal Victoria Hospital’s Intensive Care Unit. He passed away on July 6, 2013 from multiple organ failure.
Following his death, the Health and Safety Executive launched an investigation. The report concluded that measures should have been put in place to ensure the safety of employees, such as the use of birdcage scaffolding from within the building, or the use of harnesses.
When he was subsequently interviewed, James Crothers was asked about the work practice and he said “it’s just the way it’s always been done”.
Mrs McKay revealed that Mr Crothers co-operated fully with the investigation. She also said that around six years prior to the incident in Ballyclare, Mr Crothers had fallen while carrying out similar work, which she said “should have set alarm bells ringing” and that “a system should have been put in place at that time to ensure such a thing didn’t happen again”.
Defence barrister Mark Farrell told the court that the company held Mr Beston “in very high regard and esteem”. Mr Farrell said his death was a “very difficult experience” for both Mr Beston’s family and also the Crothers family.
Citing the company as a small agricultural building firm, Mr Farrell revealed the contract for work undertaken amounted to £300.
The barrister also pointed out that following the incident, the company admitted the health and safety breaches and have since received training regarding the correct way to work on roofs.
Belfast Recorder Judge David McFarland said that while small businesses such as G&J Crothers are often the life-blood of agricultural communities, they can however expose both their workers and the public to risks due to working on a low-cost basis and cutting corners.
Regarding the work done on the roof of the building which led to Mr Beston’s death, Judge McFarland said the potential danger to employees due to a lack of safety measures such as a harness or scaffolding was “so obvious ... that a schoolboy looking at that situation would realise that there was a risk”.
Saying that in this case “no provision whatsoever was made to protect employees”, the judge said it was his view that no safety measures were factored into the £300 contract price. He added: “This is a situation where it was a completely ridiculous price being offered and accepted, and sadly Mr Beston suffered as a result of that.”
The company was given 26 weeks to pay the total amount of £24,000.