Published: Wednesday, 2nd June 2021
On 27 May 2021, Dickies Pet Centre Limited and Mr. Richard Ellwood were sentenced by District Judge King at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court for offences under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
The charges were brought by the Borough Council of King’s Lynn & West Norfolk as health and safety enforcement authority following an accident at Dickies Pet Centre's Oldmedow Road site in King's Lynn on 25 June 2018.
A palleted load of pet bedding being delivered to Dickies Pet Centre was being unloaded from a delivery lorry by a fork-lift truck driven by Mr. Richard Ellwood, an owner and the managing director of Dickies Pet Centre. The fork-lift truck lifted the load with its lifting forks too closely spaced together, so that they went into the wrong apertures in the pallet and could not support it properly when lifting it. The laden truck was then manoeuvred away from the lorry and back around a curve with the forks still raised, and the load of bedding, which weighed more than 800kg, and was more than 2.5 metres tall, fell from the pallet onto the delivery lorry driver.
The lorry driver, a previously very active man, sustained life-changing injuries as a result – fractures to his neck vertebrae – which have rendered him tetraplegic. He cannot move from the neck down, and has a permanent need for 24-hour care to assist him with everyday tasks, even breathing. His life expectancy has been reduced.
Dickies Pet Centre had not assessed the risks as should have been done, did not have a safe system of work for the unloading of delivery vehicles, Mr Ellwood had not been trained in the operation of fork-lift trucks since 2005, and Dickies Pet Centre's fork-lift truck had long been operated without access to any copy of the manufacturer's manual.
Dickies Pet Centre had previously pleaded guilty to an offence, contrary to section 33(1)(a) of the Act, of failing to fulfil its duty under Section 3(1) of the Act to ensure those it did not employ were not exposed to risk by the way it ran its business.
Mr. Ellwood had previously pleaded guilty to an offence, contrary to Section 33(1) and Section 37(1) of the Act, of being a director who consented to or connived in the company's offence, or to whose neglect that offending was attributable.
In court, defence counsel, Matthew Kerruish-Jones, accepted that the defendants had acted dishonestly during the investigation, and said that whilst Mr. Ellwood did not set out to cause an accident or injury, it was accepted that his actions, or lack of actions, led to the injury to the lorry driver.
Judge King, sentencing the defendants for these offences, said that this was an incident which did not need to occur and that unloading vehicles was done around the country, without resulting injuries. There was no reason why this incident should have been any different, but due to the failing of the defendants this was not to be the case. He was critical of Mr. Ellwood for rushing to proceed with the unloading without checking the spacing of the forks of the fork-lift truck, ensuring they were correctly spaced for the pallet to be lifted, ensuring that they were inserted into the correct aperture of that pallet, ensuring that the pallet be lowered from lorry bed height to ankle height before being moved away from the immediate area of the delivery lorry, and ensuring that pedestrians, such as the lorry driver, were warned and kept out of the way. Judge King explained that because these steps, which would have taken minimal time, were not done, tragic consequences followed for the lorry driver.
In the aftermath of the incident Mr. Ellwood told his or his insurer’s independent safety investigator that the load had fallen because the pallet had broken, and he did not admit that the wrong spaced forks going into the wrong apertures in the pallet was the real reason for what happened. Later he told a different story, also blaming the pallet, also concealing the misplacing of the forks, and also wrong, to the local authority, when making a statement under caution. Judge King said that the provision of this inaccurate information aggravated his and his company’s offending and increased the sentences passed upon each of them.
Because of Mr. Ellwood’s early guilty plea, the Judge gave him credit by way of not imprisoning him, and sentenced him instead to a 12 month Community Order with a 200 hour unpaid work requirement.
Dickies Pet Centre Limited’s fine was also reduced because of its plea, but its high culpability, the fact that the most serious level of harm was risked and was visited on by the lorry driver by this offending, and the aggravation of the inaccurate information, meant that even so, and taking into account that it was a very small company with no previous health and safety breaches, the fine was £115,000. The company was also ordered to pay the more than £70,000 costs of the investigation, which the Judge said was much more extensive than it needed have been had the inaccurate information not been given.
Vicki Hopps, the borough council's Environmental Health Manager, said, “Deliveries of substantial goods between businesses involve a number of well-known safety risks, especially where fork-lift trucks are used to handle the goods.
"Those who operate businesses must ensure they assess the risks involved for their particular situation and put in place appropriate arrangements to reduce those risks to as low as reasonably practicable.
“Advice on safe handling of goods is widely available, including on the HSE website. That advice includes references to the importance of those in control of moving goods ensuring that other people are safely out of the way before going ahead with moving them.
“Businesses using specialist equipment to handle goods, such as fork-lift trucks, should always ensure they also observe safety warnings in manufacturer's manuals and keep staff properly refresher-trained.
“This incident shows the potentially devastating consequences for anyone caught up in the mishandling of delivered goods, and, as these proceedings show, failing to reach the minimum safety standards set by law may lead to serious consequences for the businesses responsible and for those individuals running those businesses.”
Cllr Stuart Dark, MBE, Leader of the Borough Council of King's Lynn & West Norfolk, said:
"There is no success in the aftermath of a serious accident like this and its life-changing impact on the individual and their family. What we hope is that others will learn from this incident and take their responsibilities around health and safety seriously.”
“Where this does not happen, we will take action, to the full extent of the law, to give the victim justice and to ensure lessons are learned and safeguards put in place for the protection of other workers.”
“I pay tribute to the meticulous work of our council officers in this particular investigation, and the work of the Environmental Health Team as a whole.”