Watchdog accused of slowness to act

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The Independent Online

The Government's public watchdog for health and safety was prepared to wait five days before inspecting a pleasure park where workers had raised the alarm that a roller-coaster ride was dangerous, it was disclosed yesterday.

At about noon one Friday last June, a legal advice centre for whisle- blowers was contacted by two employees from a pleasure park in the north of England, who had just resigned because they considered the public was being placed in real danger. The men pinpointed four serious defects in a roller- coaster ride but the management had refused to act.

The advice centre, Public Concern at Work, immediately telephoned the local office of the Health and Safety Executive to warn the ride was unsafe.

But a senior inspector said the earliest an inspector could visit the site was the following Wednesday - long after the weekend when fairgrounds are at their busiest.

Lawyers from Public Concern at Work were so anxious about the potential risk over the weekend, when 4,000 people were expected at the pleasure park, that they faxed a warning letter to the park's director and to the Health and Safety Executive, at 2.40 pm on the Friday.

The executive failed to respond to Public Conern at Work until the Monday, when it sent a fax saying its inspection had been brought forward to later that day. The delayed reaction of the Government-appointed regulator is highlighted in the first annual report of Public Concern at Work, a charity, published today.

The report explained how the previous day there had been a defect in the fifth brake on the track. On the Friday morning, not only had the defect not been remedied but also an electrical fault had developed which constantly triggered the emergency brakes and halted the ride.

Because of the fault the workers were told to run the ride on the manual override even though this bypassed the inbuilt safety measures. When they were told that morning to sign off the ride as safe they refused, repeating their concerns. When management responded by bringing in other colleagues to run the ride the two men walked off the site. When alerting Public Concern at Work they expressed no interest in bringing a claim for compensation; they simply wanted to ensure the public danger was averted.

Guy Dehn, a barrister who runs Public Concern at Work, said he was concerned that the inspector did not appear to take seriously the urgent nature of the concerns raised.

However, the Health and Safety Executive yesterday said in a statement: "We needed further details of the complaint so an inspector contacted Public Concern at Work and the manager of the site. He discussed the complaint and received an assurance that the ride was safe.

"Based on the assurance, coupled with the inspector's previous knowledge of health and safety standards at the site, the inspector deemed an immediate visit was not necessary. So we visited the site two working days later to check the operation of the ride. We didn't consider there was any danger to the public and we didn't take any enforcement action against the operator of the ride".

A spokesman added: "We believe the inspector's action was vindicated by the fact that we found no risk to the public on the Monday and didn't find it necessary to take enforcement action".