Court in the act of waste recycling

Ignoring employee safety can lead to a day in court, by freelance journalist Terry Adby.

Waste recycling is not without its potential hazards, not just for the individuals involved in handling the leftovers of consumer and commercial life, but also for the companies that employ them.

Ignore the overriding hazard to workers' health and, sooner or later, any company considered culpable risks a court appearance, some serious condemnation, much unwelcome publicity and a massive hit to the bottom line by way of hefty fines and costs - all of it, by the way, entirely avoidable (as this article will outline).

One recycler that found this out to its cost earlier this year was Electrical Waste Recycling Group (EWRG), which was fined £140,000 and ordered to pay £35,127 costs at Bradford Crown Court for exposing workers to lead and mercury fumes at its electrical waste processing site in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire.

In a salutary wake up call for any waste recycling executive inclined to feel the buck might not stop with them, the EWRG company director identified as responsible for health and safety at the plant, Craig Thompson, aged 38, was also personally fined £5,000 - even though there were suggestions this responsibility was not even explicit in Thompson's contract of employment.

In taking the positives from the case the presiding judge was at pains to stress, however, that in legal terms the management of waste, whether electrical or otherwise, need not be such a risky business.

Better management is all that is required to prevent day-to-day business turning into a day in court.

The successful case against Glasgow-registered EWRG (known as Matrix Direct Recycle Ltd at the time of some offences) - which runs Lampcare, easyWEEE, WERCS (Waste Electrical Recycling Compliance Scheme) and other recycling schemes - was brought by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE).

A careful reading of the information the Executive released at the time indicates the complexity of some of the regulations the company breached. But the judge, with the backing of the HSE, also made clear how blindingly simple it is to avoid falling foul of them.

It is a legal requirement for an employer to keep workers and the public safe as far as is "reasonably practicable."

The first step in ensuring this happens is a risk assessment process that actually works, and that rings alarm bells when things are not right.

Noticeable by its absence at EWRG's Huddersfield site, effective risk assessment would not merely have highlighted the illegal mercury levels and toxic fumes generated by lamp recycling at the plant, but would also have allowed the problem to be rectified, and the plant to have got back to work. Problem solved.

Instead the contamination dragged on for 10 months until enforcement notices were issued and legal proceedings got underway.

According to the HSE, who will work closely with companies to assist them in their health and safety planning if given the chance to do so, proper risk assessment has five essential features: identification of hazards; establishing who could be harmed and how; evaluating risks and deciding on precautions; recording and implementing findings and, finally, regular review.

This process happens not just once, but on an ongoing basis, and implies the involvement of competent staff who combine an understanding of the regulations with the insight to spot a problem if one arises.

It is clear that a culture of safety does not, to coin a phrase, happen by accident.

Management must be effective and individuals must take responsibility. That said, the judge made clear that responsibility cannot be wholly delegated to one individual or team.

Senior personnel must be capable, for example, of interpreting the results of tests carried out under risk assessment. If they do not understand them, they must seek professional guidance of someone who does, and act on it. Ignorance, it is clear, is no excuse.

The judge also made clear that the unacceptability of passing the buck meant companies using technical equipment to meet their environmental obligations cannot rely on the word of suppliers.

EWRG had purchased equipment from the US to safeguard employees from mercury vapour, but failed to conduct the follow up checks to ensure that was the case.

The company was, he said, responsible for ensuring its equipment did what it was meant to do.

Finally, in the spotting and rectifying a health and safety issue, the judge confirmed the seemingly obvious - speed is of the essence.

EWRG's failure to act over a long period of time compounded its failure to spot the signs that all was not right, even when risk assessments were conducted.

It was a "major aggravating factor" he said, and made a big fine inevitable regardless of what the company may have done since, which he acknowledged it had, to put its house in order.

It sometimes seems 'health and safety' has become a British obsession.

Traditional events from pancake races to cheese rolling contests bite the dust with alarming regularity because of perceived hazards that had gone unnoticed for years.

Whole TV documentaries have been ironically devoted to it.

But the lessons of EWRG's experience are clear. The health and safety of workers is no laughing matter, and any waste management or recycling company ignores it at its peril.

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