Coroner calls on Heathrow airport operators to improve safety

An aircraft is marshalled to a parking bay at Heathrow airport.
Photo: Heathrow Airport

In the aftermath of a tragic incident that claimed the life of a British Airways engineer and Unite member at Heathrow Airport in 2018, concerns over worker safety have come to the forefront.

The inquest, which concluded on Friday last week, found that background visual interference was a contributory factor in the death of John Coles, a 44-year-old engineer who died in a vehicle collision in 2018 at Heathrow Airport.

The coroner who oversaw the inquest into the engineer’s death, has taken official action by writing to Heathrow Airports Limited (HAL), seeking answers and accountability regarding the safety measures in place at the airport.

The incident and contributory factors

The unfortunate incident occurred on 14th February 2018 when Mr. John Coles, a 44-year-old engineer employed by British Airways, was driving a Renault Kangoo van near Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport.

Tragically, his vehicle collided with a Toyota Hilux safety vehicle driven by a Heathrow Airport employee. The subsequent inquest, which concluded on Friday, 21st July, revealed that background visual interference played a significant role in the collision.

According to PC Geoghegan, who investigated the incident, several factors contributed to the background visual interference.

These factors included the darkness of the sky at the time of the incident, the illumination from the nearby terminal building, and the presence of aircraft with flashing lights.


The Coroner’s call for action

Following the inquest, coroner Mr. Furniss expressed his concerns regarding the time it has taken for HAL to acknowledge the dangers posed by background visual interference.

In a prevention of future deaths (PFD) report addressed to Trevor Waldock, the head of airside operations at HAL, Mr. Furniss was critical of the lack of specific consideration given to this phenomenon by the airport operator.

The report firmly urged HAL to act to prevent future fatalities, and Mr. Furniss believes that the company and its officers have the power to implement necessary safety measures.

The coroner’s report has placed an obligation on HAL to respond to the concerns raised by 18th September 2023.

Family and Unite Union call for immediate improvements

Both the family of John Coles and the Unite union have called on HAL to promptly implement safety improvements to prevent further deaths.

Mark Coles, John’s brother, emphasized that the promises made by HAL at the inquest must lead to tangible and effective changes, not mere empty assurances.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham highlighted the paramount importance of the well-being of all Heathrow Airport employees.

She stressed that safety is non-negotiable, and the union will hold HAL accountable for delivering on their promised safety improvements.

During the inquest, the Coles family received legal representation from Thompsons Solicitors, who provide legal services to all Unite members and their families.

Kam Singh, the representative from Thompsons Solicitors, acknowledged the significance of this legal support, made possible by John Coles’ union membership.

He expressed relief that the family finally received the information they had been denied for over five and a half years.

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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 4 Min Read
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