Workplace death – Parents’ fight for justice

A recent Coroner’s Inquest into the circumstances leading to the death of 24 year old Stephen O’Brien from Drogheda in October 2007 when a boiler exploded at the Haribo confectionary factory in Finglas (since closed) might lead to prosecutions for criminal negligence.

However the fact that this case is on-going for three years and that prosecutions may result is thanks to the determination of Stephen’s parents, Sean and Ann-Marie, who were not satisfied with the original Health and Safety Authority (HSA) investigation which originally sought to paint this incident as a pure accident and not to refer the case to the Director of Public Prosecution.

The HSA’s report into the incident did not factor in events that led to the boiler explosion. A breakdown occurred on the production line the day previous to Stephen’s death. A company was brought in to investigate the fault, KB Combustions Ltd. They identified the problem and the part that was required to repair it. It was arranged that it would be fitted the following day by the contractor

In order to keep production going, a senior member of staff, who nonetheless did not have the technical qualifications to understand the workings of the boiler and the risks involved, was shown how to bypass safety control circuits in order to keep production going until the arrival of the spare part.

He in turn showed Stephen, who was only eight days in the job, how to perform the bypass of the safety control circuits. The upshot of this the following morning was an explosion that killed Stephen instantly and severely injured a colleague.

The independent initiative and enquiries of Stephen’s parents and the fact that his father Sean is himself an experienced maintenance supervisor ensured that the Coroner’s Inquest obtained a fuller picture of the circumstances around the bypassing of safety control circuits than the evidence provided by the HSA which ignored this vital piece of context. It appears that the decisions made by Haribo management and KB Combustions Ltd. on 3 October 2007 created hazards that lead directly to the accident. The Coroner’s verdict of “death by misadventure” as opposed to “death by accident” means that responsibility can be apportioned to the company.

The HSA are awaiting a copy of the Coroner’s report before deciding their next move. The evidence dug up by Stephen’s parents was not challenged by the company.  Stephen’s parents are supported by Drogheda Trades Council, local Socialist Party Councillor Frank Gallagher and Joe Higgins MEP who all call on the HSA to refer this case to the Director of Public Prosecution and for those responsible to be then held to account for Stephen’s death.