Firms face £1m penalty over deaths of workers

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The families of four men killed while carrying out repairs to a motorway bridge called for a change in the law yesterday after two firms were ordered to pay £1m for the tragedy.

The men were hurled 80ft from a gantry in an "accident waiting to happen" while working in high winds on the M5 Avonmouth bridge in 1999.

Yarm Road Ltd – formerly known as Kvaerner Cleveland Bridge Ltd – of Hammersmith, west London; and Costain Ltd of Maidenhead, Berkshire, were ordered to pay £500,000 in fines and costs of £525,000 by a judge at Bristol Crown Court in one of the biggest financial punishmentsimposed for an industrial accident.

But the families of Paul Stewart, 24, of Newcastle upon Tyne; Ronnie Hill, 39, of Glasgow; Andy Rodgers, 40, of Middlesbrough, and Jeff Williams, 42, of Newport, Gwent, described the sums as "wholly inadequate" and said they had begun civil proceedings against the companies.

The sentencing came a day after the police and the TUC called for new laws on corporate killing. Their comments were prompted when Euromin and its general manager were cleared of the manslaughter of student Simon Jones. Mr Jones was killed on the first day of a holiday job at Shoreham docks in April 1998. The company was ordered to pay a £50,000 fine and £20,000 costs.

In a statement yesterday the relatives of the four dead construction workers said: "Considering the gross and appalling failures of the companies and the assets of the companies, we do not feel this fine will have the deterrent effect necessary to force companies to ensure that safety is paramount above profit and to ensure that such an accident could not happen again.

"We have suffered terribly as a result of their failings and we will continue to do so for the rest of our lives." They said company directors should be held responsible for workers' deaths in such accidents.

Yarm Road admitted two offences under the Health And Safety Act – failing to ensure its workers were not exposed to risk, and failing to ensure the safety of its employees, including Mr Williams, Mr Stewart and Mr Rodgers.

Costain admitted one count – failing to ensure that people not in its employment, including Mr Williams, Mr Stewart, Mr Rodgers and Mr Hill, were not exposed to risk.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Owen said: "Perhaps the most tragic feature of this case is the accident could and should have been prevented by a number of simple measures."

Philip Mott QC, for the prosecution, told the court: "This was an accident waiting to happen. There was nothing unforeseeable about the events which led to the collapse of the gantry. It is the culmination of eight months of criminal neglect."

The four men had been replacing old beams as part of a £150m contract to improve the 2km-long bridge when the gantry came away like a "curtain coming off the rails".

The court heard that there had not been sufficient risk assessment, with equipment left untested and insufficient training given to workers. There had been similar incidents but no action had been taken.

Paul Emberley, a spokesman for Yarm Road, apologised to the families.

The Health and Safety Executive said it had written to Britain's top 150 companies, asking them to publish their health and safety records in their annual reports.