Health and safety flaws emerge at inquest on Sunderland contractor who died in lift tragedy

Stephen Summerside with his wife Donna.
Stephen Summerside with his wife Donna.

Full risk assessments for working on top of lift cars may not have been carried out, an inquest into the death of a Sunderland contractor who was crushed in a lift shaft has heard.

Stephen Summerside, 44, from Roker, died in January 2016 after he was trapped between the top of the car and top of the lift shaft on board the MV Ulysses, which was in the docks for its annual refit.

Falmouth Docks, where the accident happened. Pic: Google Maps.

Falmouth Docks, where the accident happened. Pic: Google Maps.

He had stepped on top of the lift just as a crew member called the lift from the deck above sending the lift with Mr Summerside on top right to the top, where he was crushed in a space which was between 3m and 6m.

On the second day of the inquest in Truro yesterday, Emma O’Hara from the Health and Safety Executive said Matrix, the company which looked after the day-to-day running of the ship, had health and safety procedures in place, but they referred mainly to when the lift was in service.

“There was limited detail about riding on top of the lift cars,” she said. “On the day of the incident Mr Summerside was working alone, which requires robust safety systems at work, and documents (we have seen) do not cover it.”

Both Mr Summerside and his colleague Paul Oaten had passed their induction, but said the risk assessment had not been signed or dated and there was “no sign” anyone had been made aware of it.

“Mr Oaten said he had not seen any risk assessment.”

She said she was satisfied Mr Summerside was qualified to carry out the work.

“Our independent experts said it would be normal practice to be done by one person, as long as (it was) backed up by robust safety systems. It is hard to say whether he carried out the checks from the footage.”

Mr Summerside was seen on CCTV carrying out a range of checks of the lift, both inside the car and on the landing.

At about 8.20am he was standing on deck 10, having sent the car to the deck below, and can be seen reaching up to turn a key to manually open the door in order to step on the top of the car.

The inquest was told the “desirable” scenario is that he would reach inside the shaft to press a button to put the lift into safe mode.

This would ensure it could not be called by anyone else and that it would not be able to go fully to the top or bottom to prevent any possibility of someone being crushed.

However, because the CCTV only takes images every three seconds, it is not clear if he tried to reach in and press the switch or not.

Inspector Billy McWhirter told the inquest that the pair had been staying on board the vessel since January 5 and, on the morning of the accident, on January 11, Mr Oaten got up late because he had been ill.

At 9.20am he began work and went looking for Mr Summerside. After shouting up the lift shaft from deck 9 and not getting a response, he searched the vessel before going to the engine room on deck 12.

It was at that point he realised the lift was still at the top and the safety circuit was broken.

“He looked into the hole and noticed a high-vis jacket on top,” said Mr McWhirter. “He reached his hand through and touched the jacket and realised it was in fact Stephen.”

He phoned Mr Moore, the owner of Safe Tec, who employed him to do the job, and made several unsuccessful attempts to move the lift down the shaft. When Mr Moore arrived he and another man managed to manually move it and get Mr Summerside out and started CPR.

Mr McWhirter said the lift was inspected and there was no defect, but it was not in inspection mode.

He said: “From the CCTV you see him appear to be opening the doors and the next frame he is no longer in sight and he appears to have entered the lift shaft. At the same time on deck 11, crew are calling the lift.

“It is not possible to see whether the top of the lift was level with the floor of deck 10, or if it travelled all the way to deck 9. If it had, there would have been a drop of about a metre.

“It is what appears to be a tragic case of unfortunate timing, when a member of crew called the lift before the safety could be engaged.

“It is not clear why he didn’t put it into safety mode prior to entering the lift. It is possible he fell, it’s possible he entered and had not switched it to safe mode.

“One thing I can say with certainty is he ended up in the lift shaft and the inspection mode was not on.”

Coroner Emma Carlyon said she would like to try to prevent future deaths and asked what could be done.

Mr McWhirter said perhaps there should be a second person to ensure the lift is in safe mode or the buttons should be covered when someone wants to go on top of the car.

He also said the top of the lifts should be cleaned regularly to ensure they are free from oil and slipping hazards.

Ms O’Hara said signs or barriers around the lift doors would help as well as full risk assessments, training and supervision.

The inquest is expected to conclude today.