Unsafe automatic gate caused death of Limerick council employee

Health and Safety Authority Inspector Helen McCarthy arriving at the Coroner's Court in Kilmallock.

A LIMERICK council maintenance worker was crushed to death when an unsafe automatic steel gate, weighing one-metric tonne, shut on him as he attempted to enter his workplace.

The circumstances surrounding the death of 52-year-old James ‘Jim’ O’Carroll of Beechwood Gardens, Newcastle West were recalled at a sitting of Limerick Coroner’s Court in Kilmallock on Wednesday.

In her evidence, Health and Safety Authority (HSA) Inspector Helen McCarthy said that she had submitted a file to the Director of Public Prosecutions which resulted  in Limerick City and County Council being convicted of breaches of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act and fined €75,000.

Mr O’Carroll’s son, Seamus, who recently retired from the Limerick senior football team, and who is a Garda based in Dublin City, excused himself from the court as evidence of his father’s fatal injuries were read into the record by Limerick Coroner, John McNamara.

The court was told that Mr O’Carroll was employed by Limerick City and County Council for over 20 years and worked as a road sweeper out of a machinery yard on Sheehan’s Road in Newcastle West.

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Access to the yard was controlled by an automatic steel gate, weighing one metric tonne and, as Mr O’Connell was usually the first person into the yard every morning, he would activate the automatic gate by ringing a number from his mobile phone.

He would then place a wooden plank in front of a single sensor located on the inside the gate so it would remain open for his colleagues.

Ms McCarthy said she discovered this practice was “commonplace for many years” at the yard.

On April 14, 2015, Mr O’Carroll arrived at the yard and attempted to enter the access gate on his bicycle, but, as he went to grab the wooden plank, the gate closed on him, smashing his rib cage and shoulders.

He died at the scene and the fatal accident was captured on CCTV cameras at the yard.

Con Mulcahy from Tournafullla, a mechanic employed at the yard, was the first person to come upon the scene. He freed Mr O’Carroll and performed CPR on him until an ambulance arrived.

Sergeant Mark Mannix said that Seamus O’Carroll identified his father’s body to him at the morgue at University Hospital Limerick later that day.

Gardaí contacted the HSA and designated the area around the gate as a “crime scene”.

Ms McCarthy said she determined that the Council was operating an “unsafe” gate, as it had only one sensor on the inside and none on the outside wall.

“This second sensor could have prevented this accident as it would have detected Mr O’Carroll’s presence,” she explained.

She said the gate did not have a “leading-edge- protection system to detect an obstruction in its path, and this could also have prevented the accident”.

Another reason for the fatal accident was that “the automatic gate had a closing force of around one metric tonne which did not diminish until the closing cycle was complete. Therefore the gate kept closing on the deceased even when he was trapped.

“I also found that Limerick City and County Council had not prepared a written risk assessment for the automatic gate.”

Ms McCarthy said she conducted many interviews with Mr O’Carroll’s co-workers who told her there were other previous “near misses” involving the gate causing damage to a truck, as well as an incident “involving another pedestrian employee.

“Unfortunately these occurrence were not acted upon. They were not documented, and therefore missed,” Ms McCarthy added.

She said she prepared a file for the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions which subsequently brought criminal proceedings against the Council at Limerick Circuit Criminal Court in November, 2021.

The Council was convicted of breaches of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act and fined €75,000 after pleading guilty to three charges arising out of Mr O’Carroll’s death, including failure to provide employees with safe access to the yard.

“From the CCTV footage you can see that as soon as the gate starts to open, Mr O’Carroll attempts to enter and he bends down to pick up the wooden plank. He doesn’t realise that the gate has suddenly started to reverse its action and close upon him,” said Ms McCarthy

“There was one sensor inside the gate, and what is worthy of note is that this is the minimal safety precaution with these gates.  Unfortunately you will see this in many domestic and commercial settings to this day.

“The Health and Safety Authority has issued safety alerts advising the public to have two sensors and a leading-edge-protection system on automatic gates. This would ensure that when the system detects an object or a person, it automatically bounces the gate back open to stops it closing in on top of the person.

“In this case, the gate was set up so that if it was activated it would open but if it was activated again, instead of continuing to open, it would close”.

Ms McCarthy said she could not determine the actual reason for the gate closing on Mr O’Carroll. However it was possible his mobile phone had re-activated the gate when he put it back into his pocket

“It was, unfortunately, an accident waiting to happen”.

Ms McCarthy added that, at the time, it was possible to activate the gate “from anywhere in the world, an inch away, a mile away, a million miles away.

As long as there was a signal and the mobile number was registered to the place, you could be in Timbuktu and you could activate the gate.

“It begs the question what is the safe operation of automatic gates? The conclusion we have come to is that the safest mechanism – if you are using a mobile phone – is to have a full visual of the gate before you activate it.”

She said many gates did not have this safe system “but the problem is you don’t know if there is a child or a dog or whatever there, so this is certainly a precautionary tale”.

The safest mode of operation would be to have a hold-to-run fob system, which means that you are standing in front of the gate and you point your fob at the gate and you have to hold your finger on the fob in order to keep it open.

“The problem is that, in today’s society, nobody wants to wait. We want to have instant access.”

A post mortem examination concluded that Mr O’Carroll’s death was “due to cardiac respiratory failure secondary to blunt injury to the chest”.
The jury recorded a unanimous verdict of ‘death by misadventure’.

Sergeant Mark Mannix, then stationed at Newcastle West, who was the first Garda at the scene of the death of James O’Carroll.