Bus operator sentenced over death of young employee

Regional bus operator West Midlands Travel was today fined £150,000 after an employee died when he was crushed between two buses.

Lee Baker, a 24-year-old assistant mechanic, was working a night shift at the company’s depot in Carl Street, Walsall, when the incident happened in the early hours of Saturday 22 October 2011.

Wolverhampton Crown Court heard that he was attempting to move a double-decker bus to get access to a pit, but the reverse gear wouldn’t work. He and a colleague attempted to push it backwards to get it past a single-decker parked ten feet away and sideways on to the double-decker.

Mr Baker, who had worked with the company since 2006, went into the cab of the bus, which has an automatic safety device engaging the parking brake when the doors are open. He intended to put the gearbox in neutral but inadvertently left it in drive.

As a result, when he got off and closed the doors, the parking brake automatically disengaged after three seconds and the bus moved towards the two men who were then in front of the bus ready to push. Although his colleague managed to jump out of the way, Mr Baker didn’t and was crushed between the two vehicles.

Mr Baker, who lived in Walsall with his partner, Donna Perigo, and their-then 20-month-old daughter, Katie, died in hospital some three-and-a-half months later having never regained consciousness.

A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that no supervisor was on duty at the time of the incident and that West Midlands Travel, a subsidiary of the National Express Group, had failed to perform a suitable assessment of the risks inherent in moving buses manually.

HSE also found that employees had not been trained in a safe system of work for moving buses not under their own power and had allowed the practice of workers pushing them during the night shifts. The company had a recovery agency to tow broken down vehicles both to the depot and within it, but prior to the incident only supervisors had been briefed in relation to calling them out.

The lack of both a clear, safe system of work and a supervisor had led to Mr Baker attempting to devise his own way of dealing with a problem that was preventing him from getting on with his work.

West Midlands Travel Ltd, which employs 5,000 and runs 1,500 buses a day in the region, had earlier pleaded guilty to one breach of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and a separate offence under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The company, of Bordesley Green, Birmingham was fined a total of £150,000 and ordered to pay costs of £35,119.

Speaking after the hearing an HSE inspector said:

“This was a dreadful tragedy and was devastating to Lee Baker’s family. It is clear that the failings of West Midlands Travel contributed significantly to this young man’s death.

“There was no supervisor on duty to advise Mr Baker or to ensure that no attempts were made to move a bus without somebody at the wheel, or advise him to call the recovery agency to move it.

“The company has since introduced a number of safety measures to prevent a recurrence. It is a pity a young man, who should have had his whole life ahead of him, had to die in what was an avoidable incident for that to happen.”

Donna Perigo said:

“Nothing will ever bring Lee back. My main aim has always been to prevent something like this happening again. I do not want anyone else to be in the position that I’m in now – in tragic circumstances that could have been prevented.

“Lee’s death has been tough on all of us. We will never forget what has happened but now we can at last put it to one side and focus on the future.”