THE construction firm responsible for a ‘death trap’ building site where a seven-year-old died has been hit with a £600,000 fine seven years after the youngster’s death.
Conley Thompson, who told his mum, Paula, that he was going out to play with friends at about 6pm on July 26, 2015, was reported missing to police at 10.10pm when he did not return to his home on Underwood Avenue, Worsbrough.
It sparked a huge search effort, with more than 50 police officers and locals searching for him, but to no avail.
At 8.40am the following day, he was found dead inside a 23cm-wide plastic pipe on the building site, off Bank End Road, with his hands protruding from the top of the pipe.
The Chronicle revealed at the time how a security firm had been stood down from monitoring the site on July 16 11 days before Conley’s death.
A timeline of events is not known, nor is it known if Conley entered the site on his own but it’s believed he must have climbed into the pipe feet-first either by slipping or lowering himself in before suffocating.
In March this year, principal contractor Howard Civil Engineering pleaded guilty at a hearing at Barnsley Magistrates’ Court for failing to prevent access to the site and admitted failing in its duty under health and safety laws to protect the public from risk.
At Sheffield Crown Court last week, two representatives from the Leeds-based firm were in attendance before Judge Jeremy Richardson QC postponed sentencing until yesterday.
No members of Conley’s family were present.
The firm were handed a £600,000 fine, but barrister James Maxwell-Scott, who represented Howard Civil Engineering, said the fee is in no way what Conley’s life was valued at.
They will have to pay the first instalment of £150,000 in the next 28 days with the remainder of the fine to be paid in equal parts in the next year.
It was originally set to be a £950,000 fine but due to the firm’s early plea it was reduced.
The firm were also ordered to pay court costs to the prosecution of £42,952.88.
Barrister Andrew McGee, who represented the Health and Safety Executive, said the fencing around the site was ‘inadequate’ and in some cases ‘non-existent’.
Mr McGee said company employees had recalled seeing children on the site but admitted that the construction firm did not know explicitly the area was being used as an ‘adventure playground’, despite knowing the risks.
Speaking of one of the accesses to the site, Mr McGee said: “There’s absolutely nothing to prevent anyone getting around the fence to the top of the northern side.
“There’s clear evidence that adults and children were frequently on the site there’s no dispute about that.
“There needs to be an adequate perimeter on construction sites as it’s attractive as an adventure playground for kids.”
He added that on the perimeter fencing used by the firm, bollards had been placed on the outside rather than the inside effectively giving trespassers a leg up to get over.
Judge Richardson added: “You would be over it in a flash. It’s easy access for a child or anyone.
“It is blindingly obvious that you must ensure all is done to keep people out of the site especially children.”
The prosecution added: “It is clear that Conley had been playing with friends but there is no precise timeline.
“His hands were seen hanging out of the top of the pipe.
“Conley must have descended down the pipe with both feet at the same time.”
James Maxwell-Scott said the site had been challenging because of slopes and fencing had been damaged and needed repairs.
But Mr McGee said: “It is inherently implausible that they found it too challenging to fence the site.
“The offence was to not provide adequate perimeter security.
“Had there been, Conley wouldn’t have been on the site there’s a direct link.”
The defence stated the firm has always taken the case ‘extremely seriously’ and had made a guilty plea at the ‘earliest opportunity’.
“The events unfolded in an unforeseeable way,” Mr Maxwell Scott added.
“There’s tragic consequences that one could not and should not expect.
“It’s not a product (the pipe) that expects to be sold with a warning.”
Judge Richardson added: “An otherwise decent company has fallen down on the job and tragically a boy has died.
“It’s (the site) so attractive for a child but it’s an absolute death trap.
“It’s a perfectly safe environment for anyone who knows what they’re doing.
“It becomes a death trap when you don’t have adequate perimeter fencing.”
Howard Civil Engineering regularly has a turnover of around £24 million.
Having originally been due to be sentenced last Friday, Judge Richardson adjourned the sentencing until yesterday when he handed down the six-figure fine.
Paul Yeadon, the health and safety executive investigator who has been involved with the case since the start, hopes the fine will send out a message to other firms in the industry about the importance of safety.
He told the Chronicle: “It’s just a terrible case. I’ve dealt with many fatals in construction over my many years as an inspector, but obviously a child fatality hits home harder.
“It is a really terrible reminder of why it’s so important for construction sites of any size, any shape, any nature that they take reasonable steps keep people that aren’t meant to be on a construction site off a construction site, particularly children.
“They don’t look at risk and hazard in the same way as adults, and a construction site is a dangerous place for somebody working on a construction site, let alone a child thinking it’s a playground.
“What I would say about the outcome today is we’re always pleased that we’ve brought the case to court, we’ve got a guilty plea, and we would hope that the message, whether it be the fine, or hopefully just the loss of a child’s life, that that message through the press, through the court, will get out to industry and the industry will hopefully just take a step back and go, ‘Are we doing enough? Is there more that we can do?’.
“Particularly at this time of year, it’s the school holidays. Kids are out and about, they’re bored, they want something to do ‘oh look there’s a construction site, let’s go and have a play on it’.
“Unfortunately they are just inherently dangerous places, and so we must do everything that we can do to stop them getting in in the first place, and hopefully prevent another tragedy like this.”