By NICO SCAVELLA
Tribune Staff Reporter
A 38-year-old man’s death inside a cement mixer last year may have resulted from his co-worker inadvertently turning on the machine without knowledge he was inside, jurors heard yesterday.
James Wallace, manager of Block World, said he suspects his former employee Sean Pennerman pushed the mixer’s power button that caused Kelly Brown’s lower extremities to be mangled in February 2018.
Mr Wallace said his suspicions were based on employee reports that Mr Pennerman was seen near the machine’s control panel when it turned on, and was also the one who turned it off when the “screams” started.
Mr Wallace said though Mr Pennerman never actually admitted to pushing the button when he conducted his internal investigation, there was no other explanation for the machine randomly turning on.
“There’s no way. There’s just no way. Somebody had to push the button,” Mr Wallace said.
However, Mr Wallace said it was Mr Brown’s own negligence that cost him his life, as he said Mr Brown “failed” to ensure that the main power switch was secured in the off position prior to cleaning the mixer.
Additionally, Mr Wallace said he was told that Mr Brown’s eagerness to leave work early to get drinks with his friends caused him to shirk Block World’s policy of having two employees clean the mixer for safety reasons.
Cleaning the mixer would have taken an additional 45 minutes, according to Mr Wallace. Thus, he said, Mr Brown went ahead by himself to clean the mixer, while his partner, Felix Wallace, went to retrieve his cleaning tool.
Felix Wallace never actually made it to the mixer to assist Mr Brown with cleaning it, according to Mr Wallace.
The testimony was made during an inquest into Mr Brown’s death. He was injured while at work at Block World at the rear of FYP on Wulff Road.
According to initial reports, Mr Brown, who had only been on the job for a few weeks, was in the process of cleaning the mixer while the electricity was off, when the power suddenly came back on and amputated his legs. He was later transported to hospital where he died.
Detective Corporal Cyril Walkes, one of the investigating officers, said when he saw Mr Brown’s body in the hospital, his right leg in particular was “severely mangled”.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in all my years,” the officer said. “Very, very horrific.”
Taking the witness stand before Coroner Jeanine Weech-Gomez yesterday, Mr Wallace said he was in Florida en route to New Providence on that “terrible” day when he got a call from his assistant manager, Beth Moree, about the accident. He said he was told that the control panel near the mixer was not locked and secured, and that while Mr Brown was inside the drum cleaning it, the machine turned on.
Powerless to do anything from where he was, Mr Wallace said he subsequently called a few friends who were in the area for assistance. He said all he could do was sit and wait for those persons to call him back with information about the incident.
Mr Wallace said when he finally landed in New Providence, he headed straight to Block World, but was informed that Mr Brown had already passed away. He said the police subsequently arrived and took statements from the employees who were present at the time of the accident.
Mr Wallace said he conducted an internal investigation into the matter. He explained that company policy mandates that two employees are to clean the mixer, from start to finish. On that day however, Mr Brown decided to start cleaning the mixer while Felix Wallace was getting his air chisel (a tool that removes the build-up in the mixer’s drum) from the tool shed some 100 feet away.
According to Mr Wallace, Mr Brown did so because he had plans to get off early that day. He said normally, upon clocking out for the day, Mr Brown would get together with some of the employees at Whim Automotive Limited for drinks at a nearby store. Those plans could have been adversely affected by the hour or so it takes to clean the mixer, Mr Wallace suggested.
Thus, Mr Wallace said based on what he was told, Mr Brown was in a “hurry to go see his friends.”
However, in doing so, Mr Wallace said Mr Brown “made a mistake” of not putting safety first. Based on evidence led previously, when an employee is about to clean the mixer, he would have to ensure that the main power lever is pulled down to disconnect the power supply, then secure it in that position with a padlock. The key to that padlock is then placed in that employee’s pocket to ensure no one tampers with the lock and possibly the main disconnect.
According to the evidence, it is physically impossible for the machine to get power if the main disconnect is secured in the off position, even if someone pushes the power button.
That was not done in this instance, according to Mr Wallace, as he was told that not only was the padlock lying by the electrical break box, the key was inside the padlock.
Though the evidence thus far is that Mr Brown could not have pushed the button to start the machine given the control panel’s distance from the mixer, Mr Wallace said someone else was in the immediate area at the time of the incident: Mr Pennerman.
Mr Wallace said in canvassing his employees over the next few days, one senior employee, Perry Winder, said he saw Mr Pennerman by the control panel near the mixer. In fact, Mr Wallace said he was told that Mr Pennerman was “the first one at the mixer”, though it is unclear if he got to the machine before or after Mr Brown.
Mr Wallace said Mr Winder told him that he heard a “scream”, and when he turned and looked towards the mixer, Mr Pennerman, whom he said was driving the cement block loader that day, was there and turned the machine off.
Mr Wallace said based on what he was told, Mr Pennerman pushed the button somehow thinking he was stopping the mixer, but actually started the machine, all the while unaware that Mr Brown was inside. Mr Wallace said such an admission was never made by Mr Pennerman, but he said there were other things that emerged during the internal investigation that further aroused his suspicion.
Firstly, he said when he got the phone call from Ms Moree, she said she was at the site holding Mr Brown’s hand. Mr Wallace said he was told that while all of the other employees were in “shock” and “running” around, Mr Pennerman was the only one who stayed by Mr Brown’s side.
Additionally, Mr Wallace said Mr Pennerman, who was just as much a ‘go-getter’ on the job as Mr Brown, was “never the same” after the incident. Mr Wallace said Mr Pennerman ultimately ended up having to take two weeks off from work, prompting him to tell the man to take as much time as he needed to get a handle on his feelings.
The matter continues.