£225,000 fines for companies whose health & safety failures led to two men drowning

Thomond Bridge at Limerick City

The Thomond Bridge at Limerick City. Two stonemasons died when the steel cage they were harnessed to for carrying out repairs plummeted into the river below. A third man managed to free himself from his harness and was rescued from the river.

Two companies that pleaded guilty in July to health & safety offences in Ireland, which resulted in two men drowning when the cage they were attached to fell into the River Shannon at Limerick City, have been fined €225,000 by the Circuit Court in Limerick.

Directors of the two companies admitted the offences when they appeared before the court in July (read that report here). Judge Tom O’Donnell said then it would be inappropriate to deliver an immediate judgment after hearing a significant amount of evidence and “deeply poignant” victim impact statements. He adjourned sentencing to 7 October.

Now the verdict has been delivered.

The men who died were Brian Whelan, a 29-year-old father-of-two who lived at O'Briensbridge in Co Clare, and Timothy O'Herlihy, 36, from Castleisland, Co Kerry.

The incident that led to their deaths took place on 29 August 2015. They were carrying out maintenance work on Thomond Bridge and were harnessed to a steel cage platform suspended by a crane over the river when the cage fell into river, trapping both men underwater. A third man escaped.

In July the court had heard how a crane was mounted on a flat-bed lorry on the bridge with an extendable telescopic winch that held the cage by a wire cable. A safety mechanism preventing weight overloading on the crane had failed, resulting in “unbearable stress” on the wire cable holding the cage. The cable snapped and the cage fell into the river with the three men harnessed to it.

Luke Carbery, from Palfinger Ireland Ltd, based in Tullamore, Co Offaly, and Nationwide Crane Hire Director Brendan Rainsford, based at Dock Road, Co Limerick, pleaded guilty on behalf of the companies to breaches of the Health & Safety Act.

Palfinger had supplied the winch crane involved in the incident to Nationwide in 2003, but the court heard that the crane’s user manual was missing a chapter on the importance of frequent testing of the crane’s overload protection system.

Palfinger pleaded guilty to having failed to take steps to ensure Nationwide was provided with adequate information about the crane and its operation to ensure it would be safe in use.

Nationwide pleaded guilty to failing to ensure people employed by it were not exposed to risks to their safety, health and welfare.

On 7 October Judge Tom O'Donnell fined Nationwide Crane Hire €200,000 and Palfinger Ireland €25,000. The fines are to be paid during the next 12 months.

Outside the court, solicitor Sean Fitzgerald read a statement from John and Margaret Whelan, Brian Whelan’s parents. They were unhappy it had taken seven years to reach a verdict and said: "While the fines handed down confirm the fatal injuries to our son were caused by the defendants, that is of little consolation for the loss of our son.” They said they would continue with civil proceedings, where the defendants still had not admitted liability.

Mark Cullen, Assistant CEO of the Health & Safety Authority (HSA), stated: "The provision of plant and equipment that is maintained and safe to operate is of the utmost importance in carrying out any work activity.

"It is critically important that all safety devices and protection systems that are on the equipment are maintained and in good working order to protect the persons who have to operate and use the plant and equipment.

"As can be seen in this particular incident, failure to do so can lead to tragic outcomes."