Judge orders investigation into finances of pie firm in fatal blast

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A judge has asked for an investigation into the finances of a pie firm which went into administration following an explosion in which an employee died.

Judge Guy Kearl, QC, at Leeds Crown Court, ordered the Health and Safety Executive to make inquiries after a jury convicted the firm, Andrew Jones(Pies) Ltd (in administration) of three health and safety breaches, saying he did not want to find it had been used “as a tool to avoid liability”.

The jury heard on April 10, 2009, a supervisor, David Cole, 37, suffered fatal injuries in a gas explosion at the firm’s premises in Old Road, Huddersfield.

John Harrison, prosecuting, said there were two Revorack directly fired gas ovens at the premises which were in place when the company bought the site in 2005.

That morning Mr Cole, of Salterhebble, Halifax, had started work about 3.30am and his first job was to light the ovens and get them to the required temperature for use by other employees, but one oven would not light.

The operating instructions suggested that two attempts should be made to light an oven and if it still failed the engineer should be called, but employees had not been made aware of that.

Mr Harrison said it appeared Mr Cole made repeated attempts to light the oven and another employee heard the alarm ringing at 4am. Mr Cole went outside around 4.30 and told others he had left a telephone message for the manager and went back inside.

Shortly before 5am he was asked to turn off the alarm by one of the employees and was seen in the baking area just before there was a large explosion.

Mr Harrison said the HSE investigations into the accident concluded there had been a build up of gas inside the oven which had ignited.

The severity of the explosion was amplified by the failure of an explosion relief panel at the rear of the oven to open because the original weak brass shear pins designed to allow the panel to blow had been replaced by high tensile steel bolts.

Mr Harrison told the jury they were not being asked to find whether the company’s failures caused Mr Cole’s death but simply whether it was guilty of three breaches of health and safety legislation.

The jury took only minutes to convict on the three charges, of failing to make a suitable risk assessment for the ovens; failing to ensure employees were given adequate information and instructions for their use; and failure to ensure they were adequately trained in their operation.

Following the explosion the company went into administration and was not represented in court. After the verdicts Mr Harrison said the assets of Andrew Jones (Pies) Ltd had been sold to a new company called A J Pies and Pastries Ltd with the same staff. Mr Jones had been retained by the new firm in a sales and development role.

Adjourning sentence Judge Kearl said: “This is a most unhappy situation in which a company enters into administration and then sets up in a very similar name employing the previous director, although fortunately the staff have been retained given the current economic climate.”

He asked for information to be obtained about the firm’s assets and administration circumstances. “It seems on the face of it, it may simply be a device in order to avoid precisely what has happened, a number of convictions followed by a financial penalty.

“I do not wish this to rest in the event that the director or directors have walked off with a load of money after putting this company into administration.” He said there might be another reason and added: “If that is correct there we have it, but I don’t want this to be used as a tool to avoid liability.”