Builder fractured spine after going ahead with demolition

A building sub-contractor who fractured his spine while demolishing a temporary classroom has been fined for safety failings that could put have other people at risk.

William Batten, aged 66, was injured when he removed timber supports at the corners of the classroom roof, destabilising it and causing it to collapse on top of him.

He spent a week in hospital after suffering a fractured vertebrae and neck injury in the accident near Exmouth, Devon, but has since returned to light work.

North and East Devon Magistrates’ heard on 29 July that Mr Batten’s firm had been contracted to demolish two buildings at Lympstone Church of England Primary School.

A soft strip of the temporary classroom took place on 11 June 2013 and mechanical demolition of the main structure was to take place over the following days, pending the return of his son and business partner from leave. A further risk assessment and method statement were also to be submitted before the demolition went ahead.

But after Mr Batten completed the soft strip with two labourers, he decided to carry out further stripping work, including removing timber supports to the corners and cladding.

He wrongly assumed that steel stanchions supporting the windows were holding up the roof. When the timber supports were removed, the roof collapsed, trapping Mr Batten for several hours. The two labourers narrowly escaped injury.

Mr Batten, trading as Bill Batten Concrete Cutting and Demolition Service, of Kingsteignton, Devon, was fined £500 and ordered to pay costs of £868.90 after admitting breaching Regulation 29(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007.

Health and Safety Executive inspector James Powell said after the hearing: “The work had been properly planned, by his son and partner, in advance and had the work been carried out in that manner, this incident would not have happened”.

“He had not demolished a classroom like this one before but he was aware that he was only to undertake a soft strip and that he knew the main structure was going to be brought down with a machine at a later date – once the inside had been cleared”.

“But after stripping the internal fixtures, Mr Batten continued to strip the building, wrongly assuming that the steel fixtures supporting the windows were holding up the roof. The two other employees on site at the time were extremely lucky to have escaped with no injuries”.

The HSE revealed on 28 July that the number of people who lose their lives at work has dropped by 85 per cent over the past 40 years, from over 650 every year in 1974 to a record low of 133 today. The number of injuries at work fell by 77 per cent over the same time period, from 336,701 to 78,222.

However, the construction sector had the highest number of fatalities in 2013, with 42 deaths, followed by 27 deaths in agriculture, although the totals were lower than the average over the past few years

The number of fatalities in the construction sector reinforces the need for employers to ensure they take all necessary steps to protect the health and safety of employees, sub-contractors, visitors and members of the public.

As well as keeping employees and others safe, investing in health and safety will protect businesses against the time and cost involved in putting right breaches of health and safety, the expense of a potential prosecution and the associated damage to business reputation.

Employers seeking clarification or guidance on their health and safety responsibilities or facing prosecution can find out more by contacting Palmers’ health and safety specialists Lara Murray and Jeremy Sirrell.