A self-employed joiner who fell to his death roofing a tiny Fife cottage, barely taller than himself, may have underestimated the dangers of the task because of his experience working on major construction projects.
A fatal accident inquiry (FAI) was told John Pryde, 66, had been hired by the owner of the stone-walled building to replace its 40-year-old corrugated asbestos-cement roof with modern materials.
The old cottage, latterly a store in the garden of a house in Castlefield, Cupar, was to be used as a studio and gym.
Mr Pryde, who was 6ft 2in, had climbed onto the roof of the 8ft tall building and had begun chiselling the heads off screws holding it in place when, it is thought, he lost his footing, plunged through its fragile sheeting and fell onto a concrete floor below.
The householder, John Cumming, 60, who had gone to make Mr Pryde a cup of coffee, said: “I looked out and I could see a hole in the roof next to the ladder where I had last seen John and I ran down.”
He found Mr Pryde lying “squarely, flat on his back” and unconscious.
Mr Cumming, a retired police officer, formerly a trained war-zone RAF first-aider, told the fatal accident inquiry at Falkirk Sheriff Court he checked Mr Pryde’s airways, breathing and circulation and although he was breathing heavily and had a strong pulse, he could not rouse him.
He said: “I think he would have been knocked out straightaway.”
He called an ambulance and Mr Pryde, of Newport-on-Tay, was taken to Ninewells Hospital.
He was found to have a serious, untreatable traumatic brain injury and skull fractures of a type typically sustained by falling backwards and striking the back of the head.
He died in intensive care the following day, February 9 2022.
No precautions taken
The inquiry heard Mr Pryde, who traded as John Pryde Joinery, was a sole trader but had many years of experience, including working as an employee on very large construction projects.
He had told Mr Cumming working on roofs was his “speciality”.
Principal inspector of heath and safety Dave Charnock said Mr Pryde had gone onto the fragile roof without appropriate equipment to protect him from falls.
He said: “The evidence suggests that he fell while walking on fragile asbestos cement sheets onto the concrete floor below.
“No physical precautions, such as edge protection, crawling boards or access platforms were being used.
“He appears to have accessed the roof by a leaning ladder and then walked on the surface of the roof, relying on positioning his weight over the timber supports.
“Fragile roofs are the single biggest cause of fatal accidents in construction.
“Asbestos cement sheets, particularly very old ones, are very brittle and can shatter without warning, like standing on a pane of glass.”
False sense of safety
Mr Charnock said the old roofing should have been removed from underneath.
“Mr Pryde hadn’t always been self employed – he had worked on large construction projects.
“Risk perception is an ongoing challenge in the construction industry.
“If you’re used to working on huge industrial roofs and you see an outbuilding of the type involved here you might well think that you’d be safe, but you’d be wrong.”
‘Tragic’ short fall
Sheriff Simon Collins KC said: “One of the particularly tragic aspects of this case is the relatively short distance Mr Pryde fell.
“Many people might think that falling eight feet you might break a limb, not die.
“It is possibly a telling point that Mr Pryde was very experienced in working in construction and on much bigger and more dangerous roofs than this.
“When he looked at this, eight feet off the ground, his risk perception may have been unrealistic, because he would have been used to working in what would have looked like much riskier environments.”
The sheriff said he would give his formal determination in writing.
For the latest court cases across Tayside and Fife, join our Courts Facebook page.