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HSE signs up QC Carlisle for HEX prosecution

THE BARRISTER who last year secured the highest-ever fines following a prosecution under the Health & Safety Work Act is to lead the case against Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering and Geoconsult GES over the Heathrow Express collapse.

Hugh Carlisle QC has been retained in advance of the 11 May hearing at Uxbridge Magistrates Court. He last represented the Health & Safety Executive in the successful Old Bailey prosecution which followed the Ramsgate walkway collapse of September 1994. Four firms were found guilty and fined a total of £1.7M.

The HSE announced last week that it was to prosecute Balfour Beatty and its specialist tunnelling adviser Geoconsult under the Health & Safety at Work Act as a result of October 1994's spectacular collapse at the heart of Heathrow Airport. Its case will allege that both firms failed to ensure the safety of their employees and others during the construction of tunnels using the New Austrian Tunnelling Method.

Carlisle is unlikely to appear in front of the magistrates, but the HSE's solicitors, having spent over three and a half years preparing for this prosecution, now fully expect the case to be committed to trial by judge and jury in a higher court. If they are successful, the firms could face unlimited fines rather than the £20,000 maximum which magistrates can levy.

Significantly, while the HSE refers to its prosecution as arising from investigations into the collapse in Heathrow's central terminal area, the actual charges relate to tunnelling work carried out at both the CTA and at Terminal 4 between May and October 1994. It is likely therefore that the HSE's case will focus on the failings in management and risk control of the process leading to the collapse rather than on the specific accident itself.

The delay in bringing the prosecution is believed to result from the length of time it took to carry out the investigation and, in particular, the time taken to excavate to the seat of the collapse to collect first hand information about the mode of the collapse.

No-one was injured during the accident but it is thought to have cost in excess of £100M to put right and added six months to the HEX programme. The HSE said it was still committed to publishing a full report on the Heathrow collapse incident but could not do so until 'criminal proceedings have been concluded'.

Balfour Beatty confirmed that it had received summonses for prosecution and added that since the HSE published its interim report on NATM in 1996 'the relevant management procedures and working arrangements for safety were reviewed across the Balfour Beatty Group'.

Antony Oliver

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