A SAWMILL in Herefordshire has been fined £200,000 after a Tredegar man was crushed and killed while at work there three years ago.

Hereford Crown Court heard how Pontrilas Sawmills had failed to risk-assess the process of clearing debris from underneath a machine that stacks planks of wood.

Prosecution barrister Sam Jones said Roman Grzegorz Kokot, 32, was trying to free a trapped piece of wood under the stacker and lift at the sawmill, between Hereford and Abergavenny on the A465, when the lift table fell onto him. He said there was "no suggestion that he survived the crushing".

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Mr Jones said the worker, who lived in Tredegar but whose family was in Poland, was pronounced dead at the scene when emergency services arrived on December 20, 2017.

The court heard there was no risk assessment or safe system of work for going under the machine to free debris, which stopped the lift from descending as it should, and management had been aware of workers going underneath to do so for the 11 years the machine had been in place.

Mr Jones told the court on Friday (January 29) it was only "a matter of luck that an accident like this had not happened before".

He said the lift table was around a metre off the floor when Mr Kokot and a colleague, who also sustained a head injury in the incident at around 11pm, went underneath.

The machine's safety device, which detects slack in the chain which lowers the table, had failed on the day, meaning when the blockage was dislodged the table fell.

Defence barrister James Buchanan said the 53-year-old company, which is on an 60-acre site and employs about 270 workers, was "proud of its success and the contribution they feel they make to the area locally".

But he said the firm had pleaded guilty to the health and safety breach at the earliest opportunity and have taken a proactive role since, spending around £1.6 million on improvements as it tried to reach a "gold standard" of safety.

Mr Buchanan said the sawmill was run by "thoroughly decent and compassionate individuals who have taken this case terribly, terribly seriously".

"It's a local company run by decent people who bitterly regret the tragedy which happened at its premises," he said.

While the firm accepted the slack chain detection system had not worked on the day, it was working before and was proved to be working when the Health and Safety Executive investigated.

He said it had not worked as designed, but given as there had never been an "uncontrolled descent" during a blockage clearance before, it showed the sensors worked. But he admitted there was still 30 centimetres of chain slacking after the table fell.

During the sentencing, Judge Nicholas Cole said Pontrilas Sawmills was a "significant employer" in the Herefordshire-Welsh border area, but noted two previous health and safety convictions, one of which after an incident which left a worker with a broken arm.

Judge Cole said measures such as the slack chain detectors showed "efforts were made to limit risk" to workers, but these were not sufficient, especially as there was no risk assessment.

For the health and safety breach, he fined the company £200,000, taking into account the recent improvements, its cooperation with the investigation and the fact it was a "responsible local business".

Pontrilas Sawmills must also pay more than £22,000 prosecution costs and a surcharge.

In a statement after the sentencing, a spokesperson for Pontrilas Sawmills added: “Further to the apology given in court we want to express our sincere remorse at the tragic loss of one of our employees Mr Roman Kokot in December 2017.

"The company regrets the circumstances that culminated in the death of Mr Kokot and our thoughts remain with his family and friends.

"Valuable lessons have been learned as a result of this tragic accident and we as a company are committed to maintaining the high standards we have achieved in terms of machinery safety.”