Company fined £200,000 after death of Swanley man who worked on Woolwich free ferry

PUBLISHED: 16:50 21 October 2015 | UPDATED: 16:50 21 October 2015

Ben Woollacott

Ben Woollacott


Ben Woollacott died after a failure by the company to ensure the health and safety of its crew

Funeral of Ben WoollacottFuneral of Ben Woollacott

The company which ran the Woolwich free ferry where a man died while working on board in August 2011, has been found guilty of failing to ensure the health and safety of its crew.

Serco Limited has today (October 21) been fined £200,000 after being found guilty after a trial lasting eight days at the Inner London Court.

Funeral of Ben WoollacottFuneral of Ben Woollacott

Benjamin James Woollacott, a deckhand from Swanley who had been working on board the Woolwich free ferry Ernest Bevin, sustained severe head injuries and drowned when he was dragged overboard by a mooring rope while releasing lines that were securing the ship to a mooring buoy.

Early on the morning of August 3 2011, the Ernest Bevin was moored on the buoys at Woolwich and was due to be used to start the service that morning. The crew were taken out to the vessel by a launch and preparations made to bring the ferry into service. At the time of the incident, the downstream ropes had been let go and recovered and the mooring party gone up to the upstream end. The main moorings to the buoy had been let go and recovered. The ferry had steamed up into the tide while the slip rope was to be recovered. It was during this part of the operation that the incident occurred. A subsequent investigation showed that when released, the sliprope was in the water and had been dragged into one of the ship’s propellers.

Funeral of Ben WoollacottFuneral of Ben Woollacott

Mr Woollacott was caught in a loop of the sliprope and was dragged overboard, striking the buoy before entering the water. He was quickly recovered by the ship’s boat with the aid of a Port of London Authority launch and taken to the South Terminal of the ferry. But despite the best efforts of paramedics, he was declared dead at the scene.

An investigation into the incident was opened by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. It showed the risk assessment and procedures in operation at the time had not been recently updated and did not cover the work being carried out.

Funeral of Ben WoollacottFuneral of Ben Woollacott

It also became apparent that the crew were not being monitored to ensure compliance with procedures.

On October 16 Serco Ltd was found guilty of a charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of the crew of the Ernest Bevin under the NS & FV (Health and Safety at Work) Regs 1997. It was cleared of a second separate charge of failing to ensure the safe operation of the Ernest Bevin under Section 100 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Funeral of Ben WoollacottFuneral of Ben Woollacott

Today while passing sentence, His Honour Judge Jeremy Donne QC said when a breach of health and safety results in a death, it is a very serious case. There was essentially a disconnect between theory and practice and there didn’t appear to be any monitoring of what was happening on the day. The company was fined £200,000 with £200,000 costs.

Andrew Rudge, area operations manager for the area of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, said: “This was a tragic incident and our sympathy goes out to the family of Ben Woollacott.

“This case serves as a reminder that owners and operators of ships should review their procedures and risk assessments regularly, ensure they are fit for purpose and are being used correctly by their employees.”

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