A waste management firm has been convicted of corporate manslaughter and ordered to pay £500,000 nearly four years after one of its employees was killed in an “entirely preventable” explosion.
Father-of-three Michael Whinfrey, 42, suffered fatal head injuries when the door to an autoclave, a large vessel which used steam and pressure to break down rubbish at Sterecycle’s plant in Rotherham, failed and blew out under pressure on January 11, 2011.
The force of the explosion was so great it blew a hole in the wall of the factory. A colleague of Mr Whinfrey also sustained serious life-changing injuries as result.
An investigation by South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive found that the explosion resulted from the failure of a screw connection to the autoclave locking ring, which secured the door to the machine.
Investigators said there had been longstanding issues with the autoclave doors that were clearly not rectified properly and safely.
Sterecycle, which was found guilty of corporate manslaughter after a trial, ceased operations at the Sheffield Road plant in October 2012 after having been placed into administration and has since been put into liquidation.
During the trial, three managers at the site were cleared of health and safety breaches in court.
Sterecycle maintenance manager Kevin Goss, aged 58, of Dixon Road, Hillsborough, Sheffield, operations manager Steven Weaver, 39, of Orchard Croft, Wales, South Yorkshire, and operations director Paul Greenwell, 52, of Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, all denied health and safety breaches.
Detective Sergeant Rob Platts, who led the investigation for South Yorkshire Police, said: “I am pleased with the verdict reached today as it recognises the systemic failings of a company who had a duty of care to its employees.
“The company was aware of a longstanding issue with the autoclave doors and made no effort to repair the problem properly, putting the lives of their employees at risk.
“Because of the company’s inexcusable neglect, a man lost his life in a completely avoidable incident.
“After nearly four long years, Mr Whinfrey’s family can finally begin to put this painful ordeal behind them and move forward with their lives. They finally have the truth about his death and I hope the verdict reached today brings them some small amount of peace.
The long-term partner of Mr Whinfrey, Margaret Crofts, said after the trial: “Michael, a father to our three children, was a hard working man who loved and cared for all his family and friends. Since this day, there has been a huge hole in all our lives.
“I have had to cope on a daily basis with not knowing or understanding what actually happened to Michael on the 11th January 2011.
“With this guilty verdict now in, I know that through the negligence and incompetence of Sterecycle the company, Michael, through no fault of his own, was unlawfully killed.
“I wish to thank South Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive for carrying out a thorough investigation into this matter and also the CPS for continuing with the prosecution even though the company had entered administration.”
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 on 11 January 2011, 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.”
In his sentencing remarks, High Court Judge Mr Justice Jay said: “I fully recognise and appreciate that corporate manslaughter cases are often extremely difficult to investigate and to assemble.
“The evidence can be complex and technical, and a thorough police investigation must explore all reasonable lines of inquiry, many of which turn into cul de sacs. Moreover, these cases can severely stretch police resources and expertise. The present case has proven to be no exception.
“I have absolutely no doubt that this case has been one of the most difficult and demanding of its type that has confronted the criminal justice system.
“I am very happy to be able to say that South Yorkshire Police have stepped up to the plate and been more than equal to the very onerous responsibilities that have been placed upon them.”