An icy health and safety lesson in Ayrshire

Following the shocking death of a construction security guard at a windfarm site in Scotland, Chris Walker looks at the health and safety lessons from the incident.

The case:
A security guard employed by Corporate Service Management, contracted by Northstone (NI) to provide security for the Afton Windfarm site in East Ayrshire, was found lying unconscious and hypothermic in deep snow by Police Scotland. The guard did not regain consciousness.

The outcome:
Northstone (NI) pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £768,000.

Corporate Service Management pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £100,800.

In November 2021 two companies were fined for breaches of health and safety legislation, following the death of a 74-year-old security guard. He was found lying face down and hypothermic in deep snow at Afton Windfarm, a remote site near New Cumnock in East Ayrshire, Scotland. 

What happened?

According to the prosecuting authority’s description of events, Ronald Alexander had been working as a security guard for Corporate Service Management, and had been deployed to the windfarm after the firm was contracted by Northstone (NI) to provide security for the site.

At midday on 21 January 2018, as forecasted, weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. This resulted in deep drifts on both the key road into the windfarm and the road between the gatehouse where Alexander worked and the compound where a colleague was stationed.

Although mobile phone communications were known to be poor and inconsistent at the site, there was no landline for Alexander to use in order to call for help. Two-way radios were available, but these could only be used for the guards to speak with each other and did not reach offsite. 

At around 5pm, Alexander’s colleague managed to obtain a signal on his mobile phone and reported to Corporate Service Management’s control room that not only had his generator failed, but the only means of transporting the men offsite – a 4×4 vehicle – had become trapped in the deep snow at the site compound. Despite being made aware of this, Corporate Service Management did not call the emergency services until after 9pm, more than four hours later.

“The existing plan relied heavily on there being effective communication between the guards and their control room. However, both companies failed to provide an effective 
solution to ensure this.”

Police Scotland’s Mountain Rescue Team was deployed soon after, but it was not until just after midnight on 22 January that Alexander was found unconscious, face down in the snow. He died later that day, having never regained consciousness.

What failings led to the incident and what action was taken?

What makes Alexander’s death most tragic is that it was entirely avoidable. As affirmed by the prosecution report and subsequent action, there was a series of health and safety failings in the lead-up that should have been addressed – the majority of which could have been solved through implementation of a robust and tested emergency plan.

While Northstone (NI) had an emergency weather plan in place, it failed to address a catalogue of issues. It did not accommodate for times when nobody from the company would be present at the site, there was no back-up generator at either of the guards’ locations should the main generator fail – despite this having occurred on several occasions previously – and the guards had no reliable means of calling for help. The existing plan relied heavily on there being effective communication between the guards and their control room. However, both companies failed to provide an effective solution to ensure this.

At the hearing, both companies pleaded guilty to separate breaches. Northstone (NI) pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.” The company was fined £768,000.  

Corporate Service Management pleaded guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, which states: “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees.” It was fined £100,800. 

When it comes to calculating these fines, while the exact methodology has not been published for this case, they will have been determined through analysis of the severity of the incident, level of culpability and size of each organisation. 

Northstone (NI)’s fine is especially high due to the size of the organisation and the catalogue of failings, identified by the prosecuting authorities, that were allowed to happen on its estate.

What lessons can be taken?

There are many lessons that can be taken from the situation – not least that emergency plans must not be based on best-case scenarios, should be field-tested and need to be more than a tick-box exercise. Put simply, businesses need to put in place a plan that will work in a real-life scenario. An effective failsafe designed for the worst-case scenario can quite literally be the difference between life and death. 

Another lesson that many business owners and directors should take from this scenario is responsibility for a health and safety failing that may lead to injury, or even death, cannot simply be outsourced to a third-party provider. As demonstrated in this case, both companies were found responsible for failings and the blame was not shifted solely onto Alexander’s direct employer. Organisations are responsible for the health and wellbeing of everyone on their estate. They have a responsibility for everyone on site, whether an employee, contractor, customer or visitor.

While threat of a fine is intended to inspire action, it should not be a business’s key driver for keeping its people safe – and putting in safeguards will help to facilitate a culture of best practice across the organisation. In the event of serious failings, it is possible for penalties to be imposed on individuals and directors who have contributed to those failings.

Organisations that are serious about ensuring the safety of their employees should carefully review existing safety documents, such as emergency plans and risk assessments, to ensure they are fully up to date and applicable to the present situation. Seeking the support of a qualified health and safety professional is a legal requirement, and businesses should pay close attention to their advice and guidance from relevant authorities.

Chris Walker is head of health and safety at Napthens Solicitors.

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