A worker who died when he became trapped in machinery at a Chichester composting site was a ‘lovely young man’ who ‘should still be here’, an inquest heard.
Toby Johns, 26, of 26 Elmeswelle Road, Waterlooville, died at the Runcton composting facility located off the A259 between Bognor Regis and Chichester on December 17, 2016.
A jury inquest held in Crawley today (Wednesday, August 16), was told Mr Johns most likely climbed into the compost screening machine while it was on to try to clear a blockage.
In a statement read out to the jury, pathologist Dr Olaf Biedrzycki said he believed his death was as a result of positional asphyxiation.
The inquest heard that Mr Johns had been working at the site, run by the Woodhorn Group, for just over a year, and had become engaged to his girlfriend shortly before his death.
Patrick Harris, site manager at the Runcton facility, described finding Mr Johns’ body in the compost machine.
He said Mr Johns had phoned him while at home at around 11am to say one of the conveyor belts was blocked and he would have to pull the large cylinder screen out to fix it.
In a statement, Mr Harris said: “Toby did not tell me that he was working alone but I told him not to try to unblock the machine, but just to put diesel in, to tidy up the yard and we would fix it on Monday.”
Mr Harris said later that day he received phone calls from Mr Johns’ fiancée, Jess, and then his father, Tony Johns, who also works for the company, to say Mr Johns hadn’t been answering his phone and they were concerned.
Mr Harris said that at about 3.45pm drove inside the site to find the screening machine was running and saw Mr Johns’ legs hanging out the back.
Mr Harris said: “All I could see was Toby’s lower half from the waist down.
“I immediately jumped down and shouted to my wife to call an ambulance and ran to the control panel and turned off the machine with the key.
“I then shouted to Toby ‘Toby’ as I tried to find a way to get to him.
“I managed to climb up the belt to the screen where Toby was. I tried desperately to get hold of his clothing but it was all very tight against his body.
“Eventually I pulled what I thought was a high vis jacket. I pulled as hard as I could to try to remove him, it felt like something was jammed, I believe it was one of his arms.
“I then noticed the back of his head, forehead and side of his face were all blue and I knew he was dead. I jumped down and called to my wife ‘I think he’s dead, where’s the ambulance?’
Mr Harris described Mr Johns as one of his best friends of around ten years.
He said as his boss he had held a one-to-one with him on November 20, 2016, because those above him had said he needed to speed up so ‘this meant Toby was under quite a lot of pressure to improve’.
“At a certain point I was told to either get Toby Johns to improve or it might be me facing work problems,” Mr Harris said.
He said he did not know why Mr Johns had climbed into the running machinery when he was ‘fully aware’ of the company’s safe-stop procedure to switch all machinery off and remove the key before attempting to clean it.
He said the screener did not often become blocked and said he had never seen anyone, including Mr Johns, get into any of the machinery before safely stopping it.
Russell Beckett, general inspector with the Health and Safety Executive, said his investigation found that the large, rotating cylinder sieve of the machine had been pulled out and that Mr Johns’ body had been found at the exit of the lower conveyor belt.
He said no mechanical faults had been found, that it was ‘working properly and it was designed to do the job it was doing’.
Morgan Davies, waste recycling manager for the Woodhorn Group, said the company had strict health and safety systems in place, including regular training on correct use of machinery, and regular spot inspections to ensure they were being adhered to.
He said as a result of Mr Johns’ death, his quarterly ‘toolbox talks’ which included the safe-stop procedure had been increased to now being monthly.
He said Mr Johns had received full training to use the compost machine and that employees were allowed to work alone, though there was usually at least two on site.
Statements read out from a number of employees said they had received full training to use the machines, including the safe-stop procedure, each saying they had never seen or heard of anyone trying to enter machinery while it was on.
Andrew Pitts, managing director of the Woodhorn Group, said: “We are a farming business, there are 30 of us altogether, we are like a family and Toby was very much part of that family.
“I have known his dad Tony for 20 years so I’ve known him (Toby) from a young boy so I can’t express just how profound an effect this has had on everyone, myself and everybody at Woodhorn.
“I can’t even begin to imagine the impact it’s had on Tony and Kim but I would like to say thank you to them for the incredible dignity and love actually you have shown to Woodhorn, I don’t know how you managed to do that.
“Toby will never been forgotten. It’s everything you dread with one of your staff.
“At the end of the day Toby was employed by me so it happened on my watch and is something I will carry with me for the rest of my life, but that’s nothing compared to the effect on his family.
“Toby was a lovely young man and he should still be here.”
In a statement read out at the hearing, Mr Johns’ mother, Kim Johns, described her son as a ‘sociable and happy man’.
She said: “This incident has affected our life greatly, it was such a shock.
“Toby was a happy man and he enjoyed life. He and his dad did so much together and he’s greatly missed by the whole family.”
Chief coroner for West Sussex, Penelope Schofield, is due to sum up the evidence tomorrow before the jury is sent out to consider its ruling.
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