Father and uncle of 20-year-old who died after falling from telehandler basket given suspended prison sentences

Henry Willis.

The father and uncle of a 20-year-old man who lost his life while working for the family agricultural engineering business have avoided prison.

Henry Willis died on January 26, 2019, after falling from a telehandler basket while working on a roof at Manor Farm, East Tanfield.

Teesside Crown Court heard how Henry was working for Gilling West-based DH Willis & Sons Ltd, a company run by his father Timothy, 58, and uncle Mark, 56.

The court heard how he was standing on the telehandler basket passing roof sheets to one of two other men he was working alongside when a gust of wind caught a sheet and blew him off.

He suffered a serious head injury after falling around 20ft.

One of his colleagues started CPR and he was taken to hospital by air ambulance but died two days later.

The joint investigation between North Yorkshire Police and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the basket did not comply with health and safety regulations and that equipment necessary to complete the work safely had not been in use on the construction project.

DH Willis & Sons had previously been issued an improvement notice and prohibition notice from HSE for unsafe working practices, one of which related to a metal basket in use on a telehandler, almost identical to the one which Henry fell from.

In 2014, an inspector visited a site in West Witton and found the company using a telehandler fitted with a homemade cage.

In 2016, another Health and Safety Executive inspector found that Timothy and Henry were working on a roof in Brompton-on-Swale with no means of preventing a fall.

The company was ordered to destroy two metal baskets which had been used attached to teleporter vehicles.

Prior to Henry’s fall, contractors working at the same site as DH Willis & Sons had expressed concerns about the company’s unsafe working practices and concerns were also raised by previous employees.

Judge Christopher Butcher said that for the job in East Tanfield there was “no written risk assessment, no plan, unsuitable baskets were used and the safety harness was old. There were no scaffolding, nets or crawling boards, despite £1,000 to cover these being added to the client’s quotation”.

He added: “You did not take safety seriously enough.”

The judge said he accepted that Henry had not been told to go into the basket before his death.

However, he added: “Breaches were endemic and persistent, and these procedures were not difficult or costly (to impose).”

Henry was studying creative writing at the University of Derby before his death.

Molly Burrows-Egan, who was the former Richmond School pupil’s girlfriend, told the court in a victim impact statement how the couple were planning their lives together before his death after meeting at school.

“When I go to sleep I forget and then when I wake up in the morning I have to remind myself all over again.

“Henry was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life — everybody just loved him. He was so clever and lit up every room he walked into.

“The world has lost a really special person.

“There’s not a single day that goes by that I don’t think about him even though I’ve tried to move on with my life. He is still in my everyday thoughts and always will be.”

The court heard the company and the defendants had no previous convictions.

The company was found guilty of corporate manslaughter and Timothy and Mark Willis, both of Gilling West, also admitted health and safety breaches as individuals.

Timothy Willis was given a prison sentence of 11 months, although the sentence was suspended for two years.

He was also ordered to do 115 hours of unpaid work.

Mark Willis was given a 23-week sentence, suspended for two years.

He will have to complete 100 hours of unpaid work.

Both were also handed a 20-day rehabilitation work order and ordered to pay £1,000 in court cost.

The company was fined £335,000 plus £4,000 costs.

Following the sentencing, North Yorkshire Police Detective Inspector, Nichola Holden, said: “This was an extremely tragic incident in which a young man lost his life due to his employer’s blatant disregard for ensuring the provision of appropriate equipment to keep their employees safe.

“The investigation uncovered a number of dangerous working practices which put the lives of everyone working on site at risk.

“The basket in use by Henry at the time of his fall was not fit for purpose and the reality is that if he had been provided with the right equipment and training, he could still have been here today.”

Health and Safety Executive Inspector, Paul Thompson said: “This case, which has resulted in the tragic loss of a young man’s life, is an example where a company and its directors have failed to heed previous enforcement action and advice.

“Falls from height remain the single greatest cause of work place fatalities and serious injuries within Great Britain.

“I would strongly urge anyone undertaking roof work or working at height to spend the time producing a risk assessment and introducing the relevant control measures and suitable work equipment, to protect those workers under their control.”