Published: 00:01, 28 May 2014
A rice manufacturer fined £140,000 after an employee died when his leg became entangled in machinery has been in court again for another breach of health and safety regulations.
Veetee Rice Limited company was fined £30,000 after trained machine operator Khalil Ahmed's hand was caught between rollers on a packing machine.
Mr Ahmed, who had worked for the firm based on Medway City Estate in Strood for two years, lost the skin on three fingers and had his fingernails broken during the incident in March 2012.
It happened almost six years after Gravesend father-of-two Balwinder Singh Aulkh, 46, died after becoming trapped in a grain-carrying machine.
The father-of-two's left leg had to be amputated by the emergency services to free him from the conveyor, but he later died on his way to hospital.
However, despite this accident - as well as the one involving Mr Ahmed, another in 2009 when an employee lost two fingers at the same factory and one at Veetee Rice's sister company when a worker's finger was crushed while cleaning machinery - Veetee Rice was described by its legal team as having a "good, if not very good" safety record.
The company admitted breach of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, in that they failed to prevent access to dangerous parts of a moving machine, at an earlier magistrates' court hearing and the case was sent to Maidstone Crown Court for sentencing.
Imposing the fine, as well as costs of £5,492 and £500 compensation to Mr Ahmed, Recorder Cairns Nelson QC said it was a "significant" breach of regulations and that the fatal accident involving Mr Aulkh was an aggravating feature.
However, Recorder Nelson added he accepted Veetee Rice was a "responsible" company that had co-operated with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and that Mr Ahmed's accident was a "one-off".
The court heard the equipment, which essentially moved boxes from one part of the packaging process to another after labelling, had been installed in 2011.
Perspex doors acting as a guard were difficult to see through, although a safety system was in place that meant the doors could not be opened while the conveyor was moving.
However, maintenance was being carried out on the day of Mr Ahmed's accident that meant the guarding had to be removed so engineers had access.
Mr Ahmed later told health and safety officers he had been instructed to move boxes when problems occurred with labelling.
This was disputed by Veetee Rice, who said Mr Ahmed had been told to ask another engineer to turn the machinery off before he moved the box.
Recorder Nelson said: "Whether he was told to get another engineer to stop the machinery or whether he had been told to move the box is of some conflict.
"But what matters is that this happened on one occasion. If this was a practice which had been going on for some weeks or months the penalty would have been severe."
Prashant Popat QC, defending, said it was not a case of the company failing to have safety systems in place or failing to provide equipment with the requisite guarding.
He added the death of Mr Aulkh was an "entirely different" incident.
"The failure then was to not have a proper guard in place," said Mr Popat. "That clearly was not the case here."
Veetee Rice was given 28 days to pay.
"Guards are critically important elements and they can and do save injury and even life when working as they are intended..." - HSE inspector Guy Widdowson
During the hearing, Recorder Nelson said it was "shocking" that the company put Mr Ahmed on statutory sick pay for five weeks instead of paying his full salary - a difference of about £150 a week.
After the hearing, HSE inspector Guy Widdowson said: "Mr Ahmed was fortunate he was not more seriously injured and suffered no long term affects. It was an entirely preventable incident.
"The risks of production machinery are well recognised in the industry and Veetee Rice Ltd should have ensured that all machinery guarding mechanisms were not just in place but functioning properly.
"Veetee Rice Ltd was sentenced for an offence brought under the same regulations just three years earlier, for a 2006 fatality of one of their staff, and patently did not sufficiently learn from that experience and the lessons it offered.
"Food production has one of the worst safety records within the manufacturing sector. Guards are critically important elements and they can and do save injury and even life when working as they are intended."
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