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23 May 2022

County Council in Midlands faces €3 million fine after worker paralysed

Council due to sentenced in court for breaches of health and safety regulations

Offaly County Council to be sentence next Tuesday for breaches of health and safety regulations

Offaly county council could face fines of up to €3m

OFFALY County Council will be sentenced next Tuesday December 21 in relation to breaches of health and safety regulations, which left a man paralysed after a cast iron light column fell on him.

At a circuit court sitting the local authority was charged with five counts of breaches under the health and safety regulations. They pleaded guilty to two counts which were accepted by the prosecution and a nolle prosequi was entered on the remaining three.

At today's Friday December 17, circuit court, a statement from county council worker Colm Scanlon, read by Kevin White BL Prosecuting, said that on January 23, 2019, Mr Scanlon discovered a loose light post in Kilbride Plaza. When he put his hand to the pole it moved. He rang his supervisor Gerry Gannon expressing concern.

Mr Gannon told him to put cones around the pole and a barrier.  He told him to ring electrician Rog Larkin. The electrician was not available until Friday January 25, however, on his way home from work that Thursday evening he went to see the pole and he saw that it was unsteady. He removed the fuse and made the cable safe. He formed the opinion that the pole would have to be removed. He disconnected the power source. 

On Friday, January 25, a JCB operator from Doolan’s Plant Hire, who regularly carried out work for the council, was hired to pull the pole from the ground. There were other council employees present on the day. 

Michael Hogan was not part of the team involved in the removal of the light column. He and another man had gone to inspect a parking meter in the Texas Car park which was out of order. They then asked Rog Larkin to take a look at it. Afterwards they came back to Kilbride Plaza.

The JCB operator attached a chain to a D-shackle on the digger and the chain was then attached to the pole. He shouted at everyone to move back. Michael Hogan was described as standing two car parking spaces away from the pole which was 4 metres high. However the digger operator had difficulties pulling the pole out of the ground and so the chain was moved lower down on the pole by some of the other workers as they felt there would be less risk of it slipping. 

The digger operator once again attempted to pull the pole, however, this time it sprang out of the ground and hit Mr Hogan on the neck and he fell to the ground. An Ambulance was called and while they were waiting the other workers placed bandages around Mr Hogan’s head under instructions from a paramedic.  Mr Hogan was removed to hospital and the court heard that 4 weeks later he recalled waking up in the Mater Hospital.

In her evidence to the court Lillian O’Neill, Inspector for the Health and Safety Authority (HSA)  said when she inspected the site she saw the JCB with 5 chains attached to the bucket and one on the pole. She noted that the base of the pole appeared to be sheared and there were 4 bolts at the base with one looking as if it had previously been sheared. She took a number of pictures at the site. In addition she commissioned structural engineer Michael Slevin.

In his report Mr Slevin described the pole as having a base plate which was bolted to cement. The bolts were not removed before work began. Ms O’Neill said if the pole was inspected it would have been evident. She said that typically poles would have a root mounted column which could be pulled up from the ground. However, she said this particular pole should have been supported while the bolts were removed and choke slings placed high up on the light column would typically be used in this instance. She said the methodology was fundamentally flawed and there was no safety system, work plan, or risk assessment in place. 

Judge Francis Comerford  commented that someone must have known what would happen. However, Ms O’Neill said it wasn’t thought through and there was no plan. She said no exclusion zone had been set up in the car park which would have ensured no one could enter the area.  

She recommended to the council that a safety plan specifically for the removal of poles be adopted. The council accepted the recommendations and all staff have since been informed. 

A medical report from Orthopaedic consultant Dorothy Neil read by Mr White stated that Mr Hogan, a 57 year old man, had significant head and neck injuries. He is now paralysed from the chest down. He has very limited ability to move his hands and has a high level of dependency. He had surgery in the spinal unit of the Mater Hospital, he was then transferred back to Tullamore hospital where he remained for two months before being transferred to the National Rehabilitation Hospital. Any further recovery in years to come will be slow and protracted and it is difficult to predict what recovery will be like. He is wheelchair bound but because of weakness in his hands it makes it difficult. He will never return to manual work and while he may be able to do sedentary work, it is unlikely. 

An updated medical report from Dr Kearney of Church Avenue, Tullamore, confirmed that Mr Hogan had reduced use of his hands and needs two people to move him in the bed, he also needs two people during the day. He can feed himself and can use the remote control for the television. He also suffers severe spasms in both legs which keep him awake at night. His cognitive functions are normal. But he has bladder and bowel problems.

He has no issues breathing and he remains calm and accepting. Mr Hogan had previous medical problems including a liver transplant and hypertension.  He was not in court for the hearing and is currently in Tullamore hospital as he experiences ongoing issues. 

His children wrote that they had moved into a new home which had to be adapted to meet Mr Hogan’s needs. They said his care is complex and he is at a much higher risk of being hospitalised if he gets an infection. His diagnosis is severe but he has adjusted. He suffers from depression but tries to be positive. When he left work that morning little did we know that life would change forever, Mr White read on behalf of the family.

Daily living for the family is quite difficult. Mr Hogan needs two people to get him out of bed, and he needs an electric wheelchair.

The birth of his granddaughter Sofia has brought a lot of joy to his life but he will never be able to hug her. He has also suffered the loss of his hobby, pitch and putt which he had been involved in for 30 year. He travelled all over the country with the club. 

He was a very hard working man and he misses the social aspect of his job. He cannot sit for longer than three hours in his wheelchair without experiencing pain. 

The family had to move to a new house which was adapted for him. However, they said it doesn’t feel like a home as they have three visits from carers every day. He also cannot visit his siblings in Clonaslee. Mr Hogan said he wished people could see what one day in his life was like so they could see what he goes through. His family said he has a great sense of humour and is very kind. He is known as a gentle giant and is the strongest person they know. 

David Staunton BL for Offaly County Council said everyone in the council was shocked and had cooperated fully with the investigation. They had also instigated all of the HSA recommendations.

They had made the incorrect assumption that the pole was a rooted column and believed that it would easily be removed. 

Mr Staunton said Offaly County Council had an impeccable record regarding health and safety standards. He described it as a small council where everyone knew one another. He said everyone felt remorse from the lowest to the highest. He said a mark of how serious they take the matter was evident in that the Chief Executive Anna Maria Delaney was present in court as was the Director of Services Tom Shanahan and Senior Executive Engineer John Connelly along with the head of finance. He said they wanted to extend their deepest sympathy to the family. He said they were in a position to secure a home for Mr Hogan but knew that his life had been turned upside down and he needed constant care. They have also provided €200,000 to the family. 

Mr White said the offence carries a jail sentence of two years or a fine of €3 m.

Responding, Mr Staunton said Offaly County Council has a €1.6m deficit. He said they were at a loss of rates from the closure of Bord na Mona. He said it is not a significant or well funded council. He said there had been a sense of genuine shock and heartfelt concern from Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney to Mr Hogan and all they can do is make him as comfortable as possible. 

Judge Comerford said there had been a terrible breach of health and safety standards and there should have been a prepared plan. He said there appeared to be no thought given to how the pole would come out of the ground. 

He said he needed time to reflect on the case which was so serious for Mr Hogan and his family. He adjourned sentencing to Tuesday December 21. 

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