By Jessica Magee
The widow of a man who died after a workplace fall at Dublin Airport five years ago has told a court that she is left with no answers as to why her husband died.
Richard Gracey (64) of Balbriggan, Co Dublin was unloading cargo from a plane on November 24th, 2018 when he fell headfirst five metres to the ground and suffered fatal injuries.
Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard that the main deck loader, a moving platform for unloading cargo, was 2.7 metres away from the aircraft door when Mr Gracey fell and that this gap should have been no more than three inches.
Swissport Ireland Limited was fined €250,000 on Thursday after the company admitted failing to ensure the safety and welfare of people at work on the morning in question.
Kirsten Brooks, an authorised representative of Swissport Ireland, further pleaded guilty to failing to provide adequate fall prevention measures in relation to the off-loading of a cargo plane.
Judge Martin Nolan said that if the loader had been flush to the plane as it should have been, the fatal accident would not have happened. The court heard there was a failure to police safety measures that would normally be in place.
An inspector for the Health and Safety Authority (HSA) said that while it was not industry standard for staff to be harnessed while unloading cargo from an aircraft, she said this ought to be reconsidered.
Mr Gracey and six other employees had been working on the unloading of an Air France cargo Boeing 777 which had flown in from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
Mr Gracey’s daughter Laura read aloud a victim impact statement prepared by her mother, Therese Gracey, describing the debilitating grief, anger and sadness suffered by herself and her family. Mrs Gracey said her husband loved his job and was “so meticulous and safety conscious in every aspect of his work”.
She said Richard often came home from work disheartened “because of difficulty with machinery” and described the situation at his workplace as “accidents waiting to happen”.
Mrs Gracey said she only learned four years later in a courtroom of her husband’s “total innocence” of what happened and that she has been left with more questions.
“No words can explain or conjure up such an immense loss of such a solid presence in my home and in my heart,” wrote Mrs Gracey, adding that it pains her to watch her children struggling with the awful trauma of losing their Dad in such a terrible way.
Solicitors for the Gracey family issued a statement calling on all employers to appreciate the duty of care they owe to their employees and to take all appropriate steps to ensure employees are adequately trained and not exposed to the risk of harm.
The statement also called for a change in policy so that families can receive more detailed information about the circumstances of a death of a loved one at the workplace and not have to wait until the conclusion of a prosecution.
Addressing the Gracey family, Judge Martin Nolan thanked them for submitting their oral and written victim impact statements, which he said described their huge loss, huge grief and huge devastation. He said it was a devastating, tragic and difficult case of a very loyal employee who liked his work and didn’t come home.
“If the loader had been flush to the plane as it should have been, then this incident would not have occurred,” said the judge, noting that the family has been left bereft and devastated by the loss of their father and husband.
Judge Nolan noted that while his court has imposed a fine to punish the company, the issue of compensation to the family is being dealt with by another court.
The court heard Mr Gracey had worked with Swissport Ireland since April 2005 and, at the time of the accident, was engaged in training with another colleague.
HSA inspector Mairead Wall said Mr Gracey had been carrying out two roles on the day, of team leader and trainer, when he fell five metres from the main cargo deck door of the aircraft.
“We don’t know exactly how he fell or what happened at that moment, but he fell headfirst onto the tarmac,” Insp Wall told Sinéad McMullen BL, prosecuting.
Insp Wall said a yellow safety net which served as a visual warning, was also not attached correctly to the main cargo deck door, with only three hook points connected out of four. Ms Wall said that although it is not industry standard for anyone to be latched on or attached while unloading cargo from an aircraft, she thinks “this needs to be reconsidered.”
“Because human error comes in – if Mr Gracey had a harness, at least he would have been held in position,” said Insp Wall. The court heard that Mr Gracey was taken to Beaumont Hospital after the fall but died later from his injuries.
Swissport Ireland, which provides airport ground, lounge hospitality and cargo handling services, has no previous convictions. Insp Wall agreed with Remy Farrell SC, defending Swissport, that the company had cooperated with the garda investigation at all times and implemented substantial training.
Mr Farrell offered his sincere condolences to the Gracey family on behalf of Swissport and said that although the company had a health and safety system in place, it was not policed on the day.
The court heard that Swissport took immediate significant remedial steps to review operating standards and procedures and had provided all relevant documentation to the court.
Swissport has a good record, was fully insured and has a significant turnover, the court heard. The court heard that the maximum fine that could have been imposed was €3 million.