Published: 16:03, 23 July 2021
| Updated: 19:06, 23 July 2021
A bin collection supervisor crushed by his own lorry was on the round only because of staff shortages, an inquest has heard.
Andrew Betts, known as Andy, died on November 25 last year, just four days before his 62nd birthday.
He had climbed out of the cab to help his loader, Edward Sheldrake, the only other member of the crew, when the collection vehicle, which had been parked on a slight incline, began to roll forward, crushing Mr Betts against a hedge.
Yesterday, coroner Alan Blunsdon heard evidence that although Mr Betts was fully qualified to drive the vehicle and extremely experienced, it was not his job to do so.
As a supervisor, his main role was to schedule staff to the various rounds, and on that morning another driver, agency worker Mark Rabbett, had been due to drive the 7.5-ton vehicle on Round 6, the area around Cranbrook.
In a written statement read out at the inquest, Mr Rabbett described how Mr Betts had reassigned him to another round that morning because of staff shortages, with Mr Betts deciding to drive Round 6 himself.
It is believed Mr Betts made this decision because Round 6 was the shortest round and so could be completed more quickly allowing him to return to base to continue his other supervisory duties.
How short the round is was the subject of dispute. Patrick Hopkins, Urbaser's assistant service delivery manager, insisted it could be done in two hours, although he agreed he had never done the route himself.
Mr Sheldrake, whose job as loader was to attach the bins to the lifting mechanism at the back of the truck, regularly did Round 6 and said it took between four and four-and-a-half hours.
Usually there were two loaders but, again, because of staff shortages there was only him on duty that day.
Questioned by William Irwin, a barrister representing Mr Betts' family, Mr Sheldrake said he had worked previously for Urbaser's predecessors, Biffa, before transferring when Urbaser took over the contract for Tunbridge Wells council's bin collections in June 2019.
He said for six months Urbaser had made no changes but then had "completely altered all the collection routes".
He said: "Most of the new rounds were too big for anyone to complete. You'd end up finishing Monday's round on a Wednesday."
He said the company's policy had initially been "wait and see", hoping crews would speed up as they got used to the new routes, but eventually the firm had had to introduce a lot more collection lorries and hire more staff.
But, he said, shortages of both drivers and loaders continued because, by then, they were into Covid.
It was not unusual for a driver to get out and help the loaders, he added, but it was up to the driver whether they did so.
It was company policy that a driver check his vehicle for faults each morning before taking it on the road and Mr Sheldrake had seen Mr Betts do that on the fatal morning.
He and Mr Betts had emptied 40 bins on a travellers' site in Cranbrook before going to Benenden School where there were 138 bins to empty at 15 points across the school grounds.
They had made a start but at one point just as Mr Sheldrake attached two bins at the back of the vehicle, the truck began rolling forward.
Mr Sheldrake shouted "Handbrake!" but as he looked in the left-hand wing mirror from his position at the back of the truck he couldn't see Mr Betts in the cab.
Mr Betts didn't reply and Mr Sheldrake didn't see him again until after the tragic accident had happened.
'He wouldn't be a man to cut corners'
Giving evidence by a remote link, assistant service manager Patrick Hopkins confirmed it was Mr Betts' responsibility to deal with day-to-day staff shortages, although he said if he had been making the decision, he would not have driven the truck himself but would have shared the round between two other units.
He confirmed Mr Betts had filed a report of his vehicle check before setting off and reported no faults, though he said it was unlikely that he would have let the hand-brake off and on to test it.
The particular vehicle Mr Betts drove had a lever handbrake identical to that found in most cars, whereas the majority of the company's vehicle fleet had air-brakes for both ordinary braking and the handbrake.
Those vehicles were also fitted with an alarm which sounded if the cab-door was opened while the handbrake was not fully applied. Mr Betts' vehicle had no such alarm.
Mr Hopkins confirmed that it was company policy that a driver could get out to help the loaders "where it was safe to do so".
He agreed that Mr Betts was "an enthusiastic and conscientious employee and extremely hard-working", adding: "He wouldn't be a man to cut corners."
Asked by Mr Irwin whether the fact there was only one loader had put pressure on Mr Betts to assist with the loading to speed up the round, Mr Hopkins said it had been Mr Betts' decision.
"He could have taken one of the loaders off the garden waste collection," he said.
Mr Hopkins agreed Urbaser had given drivers no specific instruction about when it was safe to leave the cab to help loaders, and also before the accident, had given no training on what to do in the event of a "roll-away".
A new policy has since been introduced that drivers should not attempt to re-enter a moving vehicle.
'I would have tried the same thing myself'
The inquest is expected to hear later that this is what Mr Betts had tried to do.
Mr Hopkins said: "It's a natural reaction. I would probably have tried to do the same thing myself."
The inquest also heard from Mr Betts' GP, Dr Tim Palmer of the Tonbridge Medical Centre, that Mr Betts was in good health.
He suffered from high blood pressure which was being controlled by medication but had not other problems.
Urbaser has the waste collection contract for both Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge and Malling councils.
Its standard of service has been criticised in both boroughs, which have levied fines on the firm for missing up to 1,000 bin collections a day.
Mr Betts had been a keen darts player, having previously played for the Kent county team and been a contestant on the TV darts show Bullseye.
He leaves his wife Lesley and daughter Laura.
The inquest is due to conclude on Monday.