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Dublin: 5 °C Friday 28 February, 2020
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Employee killed when 36 tonnes of food collapsed onto him

VF Coldstores is to be sentenced for breaching health and safety laws.

Image: Shutterstock/nostal6ie

A FOOD STORAGE company will be sentenced next May for breaching health and safety laws leading to the death of one of its employees.

Robert Ceremuga (32), a warehouse supervisor for VF Coldstores Ltd, was killed instantly when racking holding 36 tonnes of food stuff collapsed onto him.

Guilty plea

A representative of VF Coldstores Ltd of Jamestown Road, Finglas, Dublin pleaded guilty on behalf of the company at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court to health and safety failings involving a forklift leading to the death on November 28, 2015.

Mr Ceremuga was described by his wife, Maria, in a victim impact statement read out in court, as “an exceptional man” with a good sense of humour, a huge heart, “a head for ideas for life and a great passion for life”.

She said their then four-month-old daughter Martina was her husband’s “pride and joy”.

“Even after she fell asleep he would still be holding her in his arms so as not to lose any of her smiles,” Mrs Ceremuga said.

“My best friend and my entire life”

Mrs Ceremuga said it was very difficult without Robert, who she described as “my love, my best friend and my entire life” and added how hard it was to accept he was “gone forever”.

“It should never have happened,” she concluded in her statement. He had worked for the company for six years.

An engineer’s report following the accident concluded that the collapse occurred due to an accidental impact with pallets on a forklift that had been stopped beside the shelving.

The general operative who had been operating the forklift had been employed by the company three weeks earlier and didn’t have the appropriate license.

This man doesn’t accept that the pallets struck the racking and there is no CCTV footage of the actual collapse to verify his claim. VF Coldstores have not challenged the engineer’s report.

Inspector Frank Kerins, from the Health and Safety Authority, told Ms McMullan that Mr Ceremuga’s colleague had been sitting in the forklift and was about to try and position a crossbeam in the racking. He previously had been having trouble fitting it in properly.

Collapse

Inspector Kerins agreed with Mr Kennedy that VF Coldstores took its regulatory obligations seriously and had a good safety record.

He accepted that since the accident the company had not come to any attention and a number of actions were taken to ensure that safety was improved so that no such similar accident could occur. They had since appointed an auditor on a monthly basis to examine the racking and ensure it was safe.

Kerins agreed that the man who had been operating the forklift on the day had previously been in the warehouse on a number of occasions while working with a different company and “the incorrect assumption was made that he was qualified to carry out the task safely that day”.

“It is clear now that the primary cause of the collapse was the impact with the forklift,” Mr Kennedy said.

Training

A subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Authority concluded that in addition to the operative not having the correct training, the racking had been overloaded and the pallets should have been removed before the forklift operative had started working on the unit.

VF Coldstores Ltd is a small family run business. It has no previous convictions. At the time of the accident it employed 18 people.

The company has offered to pay the costs of the Director of Prosecutions in bringing the case to court.

The court heard that VF Coldstores had the appropriate safety statement, risk assessment and all their employees, bar the one who had been in charge of the forklift that day, had the appropriate training.

The directors of VF Coldstores said in a statement that Mr Ceremuga was “a diligent, hardworking family man”, who was held in the highest regard by the entire staff and their customers.

The statement said that “Robert’s death has cast a shadow over the company forever”. The company continued to pay his wages for a year after the accident.

Ronan Kennedy BL, defending, said this was “a small and probably insignificant gesture but it reflects the decency which exists within the company and more importantly the regard with which Mr Ceremuga was held”.

Judge Melanie Greally said to Mr Ceremuga’s widow that she fully understood what she said in her victim impact statement.

“That no amount of fine or money will restore your husband to your family. To put a figure on the loss of a husband and a father to a very young child is impossible to calculate,” Judge Greally said.

She added that she needed a bit of time to conduct “a scientific approach” to ascertaining the fine before she adjourned the case to 6 May.

Counsel read out a statement from the company, written by the directors, which said that they wanted to take the public opportunity to extend their deepest sympathies to Mr Ceremuga’s wife, child and extended family.

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Sonya McClean

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