A recycling firm which was found guilty of corporate manslaughter over the death of an employee through ‘inexcusable neglect’ has been fined £500,000. Michael Whinfrey was killed in an explosion at the Sterecycle (Rotherham) Limited recycling plant in January 2011, in what police described as a ‘completely avoidable incident.’
The 42-year-old was working at the waste management company, which is now in administration, as an autoclave operator. He suffered fatal head injuries when the door to one of the autoclaves – pressure chambers which sterilise refuse – exploded.
The force of the blast was so great, it blew a hole in the wall of the factory in Rotherham, South Yorkshire.
On November 7, the company was found guilty of corporate manslaughter and ordered to pay the fine at Sheffield Crown Court.
A joint investigation, conducted by South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive, found the explosion resulted from the failure of a screw connection to the autoclave locking ring, which secured the door to the machine.
The two large autoclaves, or pressure chambers, had refuse placed into them and high temperatures and steam pressure were applied to treat the waste and convert it to a fibrous material that could be used as fertiliser.
Another employee sustained serious life-changing injuries in the explosion.
HSE Inspector Carol Downes said: “Sterecycle (Rotherham) Ltd didn’t properly understand the risks of, and lacked the competence in, operating steam pressure autoclave systems. Modifications were made to the autoclaves without adequately considering the effect on the equipment.
“Safety devices were removed because they slowed production and when breakdowns occurred ‘running repairs’ were made without ever getting to the root cause of the problems. Employees were inadequately trained and felt in genuine fear for their safety at the site. The view was taken that production should be maintained at all costs.
“This lethal combination all came together in January, resulting in the tragic death of Michael Whinfrey and a colleague receiving life-changing injuries.
“Other employees and members of the public were also put at risk.
“This terrible incident was entirely preventable. The clear standards and strict inspection regimes set out in the regulations were totally neglected by the company.”
Sterecycle’s former maintenance manager Kevin Goss, 57, of Sheffield, was found not guilty of perverting the course of justice. Goss, operations manager Steven Weaver and operations director Paul Greenwell were also acquitted of manslaughter.
This is only the eighth successful prosecution of a company since the Corporate Manslaughter & Corporate Homocide Act 2007 came into force.