Thames Water was heavily fined after an accident in which an employee was killed by an
excavator. What lessons does the case highlight for those operating mobile plant?
59-year- old Raymond Holmes (H) was working with a team of others to clean a large sand filter bed at
Coppermill Lane fresh water treatment works in Walthamstow. The group were using several large items
of mobile plant. H, who was taking measurements with a laser level, was struck and killed by a reversing
excavator. The driver did not see that H was in the machine’s path.
Thames Water (TW) pleaded guilty at Southwark Crown Court to charges that it had breached the Health
and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 by failing to protect its employee from harm. The company was fined
£300,000 and ordered to pay costs of £61,229.
Where did it go wrong?
The problem of pedestrians working close to excavators is extremely common. Often, for example, a
worker on foot will provide signals to a driver if they have a poor view of the excavation. But although this
type of practice is commonplace, it’s only permitted with certain safeguards. In this case HSE inspectors
established that TW had identified the hazard of plant potentially striking pedestrians within its risk
assessment, but it had not done enough to prevent it from happening.
Tip1. Your priority is to keep pedestrians out of the work area. As the HSE points out in its online
guidance: “most excavator-related deaths involve a person working in the vicinity of the excavator rather
than the driver.” The safest method of work is to operate the machine within an exclusion zone clearly
marked by a barrier of bunting or fencing.
Tip2. If it’s not possible to exclude all workers on foot, don’t just give up on the idea and allow a free-for-
all. Instead, restrict access to those whose presence is absolutely essential.
This particular accident involved a reversing vehicle, but another common scenario is that excavators
may strike pedestrians, or trap them against fixed objects, when slewing.
Tip. Select plant according to the space available, taking into account the space required to rotate. Allow
at least 0.5 metres clearance from the machine (including the ballast weight) to the nearest obstruction.
A concern raised by inspectors was that TW had not required employees to wear high visibility clothing.
This made it much more likely that a pedestrian would go unnoticed. There was also a lack of rear-view
mirrors and a reversing alarm on the excavator.
Tip1. When choosing a machine to hire or buy, check that blind spots are covered, as far as practicable,
with mirrors or other visibility aids.
Tip2. If assistance is needed to direct the excavator’s work or if it’s not possible to exclude all
pedestrians, appoint a signaller. Ensure that they’re equipped with high visibility clothing and know the
safest place to stand whilst retaining a good view of the work area.