'Safety is non-negotiable'

Coroner calls on Heathrow airport operators to improve safety after workers’ tragic death

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The coroner who oversaw the inquest into the death of a British Airways engineer and Unite member at Heathrow Airport has written to the airport operators, Heathrow Airports Limited (HAL), in his official capacity, seeking answers to his concerns over worker safety at Heathrow.

The prevention of further deaths report from coroner Mr Richard Furniss to HAL, follows the conclusion last week (July 21) of an inquest in which a jury found that background visual interference was a contributory factor in the death of John Coles, a 44-year-old engineer who died in a vehicle collision in 2018 at Heathrow Airport.

Mr Coles was 44 years old when he died on 14 February 2018. Mr Coles, who worked for British Airways, was driving a Renault Kangoo van at an uncontrolled crossing within the defined area of Heathrow Airport near Terminal 5 when his vehicle collided with a Toyota Hilux safety vehicle driven by a Heathrow Airport employee.

PC Geoghegan, who investigated the collision shortly after the incident and gave evidence to the inquest, said that having recreated the conditions, it was his opinion that several factors were present on the day of the collision that caused background visual interference which caused difficulties in identifying Mr Coles’s vehicle on the crossing.

These factors included the sky’s darkness at the time of day the incident occurred, the illumination from the nearby terminal building and the presence of aircraft with flashing lights.

On Monday, 24 July, Mr Furniss announced that he would send a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report to Trevor Waldock, the head of airside operations at HAL.

In his report, Mr Furniss was critical of the time it has taken for HAL to acknowledge the dangers caused by background visual interference.

He states, “This fatal accident occurred well over five years ago. The expert report of PC Geoghegan, which raised the issue of background visual interference as a possible causative factor, was produced well over four years ago. Nonetheless, prior to the inquest, no specific consideration appears to have been given to this phenomenon by HAL.”

Mr Furniss concluded, “In my opinion action should be taken to prevent future deaths and I believe you and other officers of HAL have the power to take such action.”

HAL is now obliged to respond to the report from the coroner by 18 September 2023.

The family and the union Unite, have now called on HAL to implement improvements immediately to prevent further deaths.

Mark Coles, John’s brother, said, “We heard promises from HAL at the inquest for improvements to worker safety. These cannot simply be empty promises to pacify the coroner. They must result in real change.

“As a family, we will hold HAL’s feet to the fire until they make changes to protect all those working at Heathrow Airport.”

Mr Coles was a member of Unite, and legal representation for his family at the inquest is provided by Thompsons Solicitors, who provide legal services to all Unite members and their families.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said, “Ensuring the well-being of our members and all Heathrow Airport employees is of utmost significance, and they must be able to return home safely after each shift.

“We will strive to hold Heathrow Airports Limited accountable for implementing the promised safety improvements. If there is any failure in delivering these crucial changes, we will defend our members’ interests, as safety is non-negotiable.”

Kam Singh from Thompsons Solicitors, who represented the Coles family, said, “After five and a half years of waiting, the family have finally got the information that they were denied all this time.

“This inquest has finally made HAL realise they need to improve health and safety. However, it has taken over five years, and John’s mother is not here to hear the evidence of how her son died, having died last year.

“John was a member of the Unite union, this enabled John’s family to have the legal support necessary to be represented at this inquest and for the civil claim which was recently resolved.”

By Ryan Fletcher