The conclusion of the Corporate Manslaughter and health and safety case involving the death of Cameron Minshull, a 16 year old apprentice, who died whilst working on an industrial lathe at Huntley Mount Engineering in 2013 has brought a number of issues into sharp focus.
Firstly, any death at work is tragic and in most cases entirely preventable. For such an incident to involve a 16 year old apprentice is shocking in the extreme. Losing a child is every parents worst nightmare, and the bravery of Cameron’s mother recently in reading her own Victim Personal Statement out to the Court in Manchester and eyeballing those responsible for her son’s death displayed unquantifiable bravery.
The conditions at Huntley Mount Engineering were amongst the worst my former colleagues had seen. It is not often that an HSE inspector stops all activity at any operation, but they did in this instance. Practically every machine had been interfered with deliberately by employees or supervisors and managers. Safety interlocks were defeated leaving anybody at the mercy of these machines. They could not have been any more dangerous. For a skilled, experienced engineer the chances of a fatal incident occurring on machines that have interlocks defeated are increased significantly. Asking a 16 year old apprentice to run them will lead to exactly what happened to Cameron.
Employing apprentices is seen in different ways by different businesses. I personally think that having apprentices as part of a business will enrich it and provide the next generation of engineers, employees and managing directors with a starting point on the path to a better future. That might sound a little twee but we all started somewhere and many organisations share this view. The more companies that offer these opportunities the more likely we are as a whole to be successful.
Some don’t want to take on youngsters because of the perception that they are more hassle than they are worth and that they don’t have the time to properly set up their businesses to provide for them.
If you take on an apprentice you must ensure that the individuals and their environment and the tasks they perform are assessed, supervised properly and are within their capabilities. This is based on much more than their knowledge and experience. Their temperament, maturity, general behaviour and the way they approach their work is also very relevant. It is true that an employer cannot have somebody stood on the shoulder of an apprentice full time. If their work is lined up with their training programmes, is within their capability and the task has already been assessed as suitable and safe then of course they should be allowed to work things out for themselves sometimes. They should still be supervised as appropriate. Their apprentice training provider should also play a part to independently assess whether placements are suitable.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Huntley Mount. It was clear that the company saw an apprentice as a cheap source labour, they ran their business without any consideration of safety or compliance with the law and their failures led directly to Cameron’s death. The Company did nothing to manage health and safety. The training provider, now in liquidation, cannot have sent anyone to the site to assess whether it was safe. Anybody with the most limited knowledge of machines and guarding would have concluded that this factory was a death trap and should have reported it to the relevant authority. Unfortunately none of this happened.
This should not put employers off recruiting apprentices. Huntley Mount is the most extreme example that I can recall. If apprentices and indeed any trainees are managed and supervised properly there are many mutual benefits. Yes they may be an extra pair of hands on the shop floor but that is a spin-off benefit and should not be part of any resource planning. The primary reason for them being with you is to learn and gain experience. They are certainly NOT a cheap source of Labour.