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Food storage company to be sentenced after employee crushed to death

CourtsBy Sunday World
Central Criminal Court
Central Criminal Court

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.

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.

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.

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, which began operating in the 1980/1990s. 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 May 6, next.

Sinéad McMullan BL, prosecuting, read out a victim impact statement written by Mrs Ceremuga's widow.

She said her husband went to work and never came back. Her world has changed forever and it was “very hard to put into words” how she feels.

She said there were so many things they wanted to do together, “so many dreams and expectations”.

She described Mr Ceremuga as “the most wonderful, kindest person I ever met” and described his love of sunshine, animals, mountains and photography.

She asked how she would explain to her now three-year-old daughter that her Daddy's chair was empty on father's day, that he wasn't there to pick her up from childcare or to give her kisses and cuddles when she needed them.

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.

Mr Ceremuga arrived into the warehouse, they had a brief conversation and the victim went to examine the racking. He was attempting to manoeuvre the beam into position, while the operative stayed in the truck.

Mr Ceremuga got a hammer to try and tap the beam in, when the operative heard a creaking noise, saw the uprights of the racking begin to sway before the entire unit and the pallets it was holding came crashing down.

Insp 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.

Insp 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.

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.

“His (Mr Ceremuga) commitment to the successful daily operation of the company was second to none. No job was too big or too small for Robert. No matter what a customer needed.... it was done,” the statement continued. It said Mr Ceremuga had plans to return home to Poland and set up his own company.

The directors said they would never forget “the warmth and generosity” with which they were received by the victim's extended family in Poland when they attended his funeral there.

Sonya McLean