news release



embargoed until 11 October 2005 ( Back to news releases)

Trainee scaffolder fell from scaffolding which was constructed in sub-standard way

The inquest into the death of Steven James Burke at Stockport Magistrates Court concluded on 11th October with a verdict of accidental death.

Steven Burke, a 17 year old trainee scaffolder from Levenshulme, Manchester was working for 3D Scaffold on the 30th January 2004 when he fell 10 to 16 metres from scaffolding inside an empty sewage digester tank being refurbished at the Davyhulme Waste Water Treatment Plant, sustaining serious head and abdominal injuries from which he later died in Wythenshawe hospital. The HSE Inspector reported to the inquest on the substandard methods of scaffold construction, lack of safety measures, inadequate supervision and emergency procedures. This led to Steven being engaged in an unnecessary and unsafe procedure during which he fell.

Steven was described by his father, Bernard Burke, as a fit, safety conscious young man, a 2nd Dan at karate and once a member of the Junior England squad. Steven had attended a training course and qualified as a stage one scaffolder and was working for 3D Scaffold Ltd under the main contractor Mowlam plc on the Davyhulme site owned and operated by United Utilities.

On the day of the incident, Steven was in a four man team completing the construction of birdcage scaffolding inside an empty 20 metre high digester tank so that work on the underside of the domed roof could be carried out by another company RAM Services Ltd. This involved entering though manholes and working in confined spaces.

The inquest heard from HSE Inspector, Mr Nicholas Rigby, that the scaffolding was almost completed up to roof level but there were errors in the method of construction of the scaffolding which did not meet expected industry standards approved by the HSE. These included failure to complete platforms and secure ladders on the way up, lack of guard rails and toe-boards. There were also issues about inadequate safety harnesses and the man in charge of the job was no more qualified than Steven. This led to Steven and the worker in charge of the team climbing back down scaffolding poles rather than a ladder, to carry out a task that shouldn’t have been necessary had the scaffolding been built in the proper manner and to the industry standard. In the opinion of a HSE scaffolding expert, there were 2,500 too few scaffolding poles used and many less boards than necessary.

While his colleague was securing a lower level ladder, Steven began to climb back up the scaffolding to collect materials to compete the boarding of the lower platform and that is when he fell. Exactly how he came to fall is not known as his colleague only saw Steven falling past him. While Steven was wearing a safety harness at the time of his fall, evidence suggested it was not clipped on to the scaffolding and Mr Rigby explained that the route he and the other worker had to take was unsafe and did not lend itself to using this safety equipment. The team was due to earn a bonus if the work was competed on that day.

According to Mr Rigby, Steven’s employer 3D Scaffold had been issued with a HSE Prohibition Notice on 16th January 2004 at Davy Hulme where Steven died two weeks later. The HSE inspector confiscated two harnesses in poor condition and notice was issued ‘to prohibit work on the erection of birdcage scaffolding within digester tank 4 because no adequate fall arrest equipment was available’. As a result of this, a HSE inspector visited 3D on 28th January to talk to senior managers about training of scaffolders and the use of personal protective equipment. Mr Rigby said that the contracts mangers responsible for these issues admitted that he had no training in them.

The coroner directed the jury to consider two verdicts: accidental death or an open verdict. He said that while Mr Rigby’s evidence had set the scene as far as safety matters are concerned, none of this suggested any individual acted so recklessly as to cause death and therefore the jury must not consider an unlawful killing verdict. Accidental death is the appropriate verdict when an unintended act leads to an unintended result. Steven Burke and his colleague climbed down scaffold poles and Steven climbed back wearing a harness capable of being attached. Steven fell and there is no evidence at all to suggest any third party was involved in his death and therefore it is concluded that he accidentally slipped and fell. If the jury agrees on the balance of probabilities they should return the verdict of accidental death. Only if they cannot agree should they consider an open verdict.

Steve Carlyle an experienced scaffolder was Steven’s mentor and worked with him for 18 months said: “The accident shouldn’t have happened and had I been with him on that day he’d still be here now. There was nobody more qualified than Steven on the job and there should have been. Had he been with me he would never have been in a dangerous situation.”

The Greater Manchester Hazards Centre shares the disappointment of Steven’s family that the verdict wasn’t unlawful killing: “We feel that given the evidence presented by the HSE Inspector about the sub-standard methods of work, having a trainee scaffolder supervised by another trainee and inadequate safety procedures, a verdict of unlawful killing would have been more appropriate” said Hilda Palmer.

For more information contact Hilda Palmer