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West Yorkshire firm neglected safety for staff

17 December 2013

A Leeds-based company has been fined after it ignored health and safety regulations over several years, leaving several employees with disabling vibration-related disease.

Onesubsea UK Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) today (16 Dec) for failing to act on known advice and guidance to protect workers from the risks of developing the debilitating hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).   Leeds Crown Court was told that between 1999 and 2010, the company, then known as Cameron Ltd, exposed employees to risks to their health and safety from the repeated use of hand-held power tools.

Onesubsea UK Ltd makes valve assemblies and flow line parts and supplies the worldwide oil and gas industries. At the time, around 450 of the 1,000 Leeds workers were on the shop floor and a significant number regularly used air guns, grinders, sanders, drills and torque wrenches.

After health surveillance re-started at its factory in Queen Street, Stourton, 24 workers were identified as having symptoms of vibration-related disease during the two-year period to March 2012.  Some had developed them in the late 1990s but had been given little or no health surveillance and no adequate remedial steps were taken to reduce the risks to staff.

As a result, a number of employees had developed long-term damage to their circulation and nervous systems after contracting HAVS after prolonged use of powered pneumatic hand tools.   HSE’s investigation was prompted by reports it received under a statutory system obligating employers to notify HSE of certain health conditions among their workforces.

HSE identified multiple failings by Onesubsea UK Ltd over a protracted period. The firm:

• Didn’t properly assess the risks from use of the powered hand tools, or take into account multi-tool use by employees
• Failed to take steps to control the risks which were known, and failed to produce a coherent plan to introduce controls within a timescale
• Failed to reduce vibration exposure by modifying existing processes, or replacing tools with updated models
• Failed to provide an on-going health surveillance programme designed to monitor and address risks to staff
• Did not provide employees with adequate training and information on the safe use of tools, nor carry out maintenance of equipment properly
• Onesubsea UK Ltd, registered at New Bridge Street, Westminster, London, was fined £52,500 and ordered to pay £92,000 in costs after pleading guilty to a breach of Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

After the hearing, HSE Inspector Kate Dixon said:

"A number of employees of Onesubsea UK Ltd developed debilitating symptoms or suffered worsening of existing symptoms. As a result the lives of some have been forever changed. HAVS is preventable but once the damage is done, and it can be permanent.

"Focus should be placed on eliminating or controlling exposure to vibration. There are cost-effective and simple ways of reducing the risk of HAVS which should be implemented. A good health surveillance system is vital to detect  signs of vibration-related symptoms at an early stage. It is imperative that management then respond actively and appropriately to any such signs.

"Onesubsea UK Ltd did not comply with their statutory duties for a period of several years despite being aware of the risks associated with the use of vibrating hand tools. Their management of health and safety fell well below acceptable standards and a number of workers are now paying the price.”

HAVS is serious and disabling, and nearly two million people are at risk. Damage impacts on hand and finger dexterity, including the inability to undertake minor day to day tasks, and cold can trigger painful finger blanching attacks.