The former operator of the Woolwich ferry have been fined £200,000 for lapses that contributed to the death of a teenage deckhand in 2011.

Serco has been found culpable of health and safety failings after Ben Woollacott suffered severe head injuries and drowned.

Ben was working on the Ernest Bevin when he was caught in a loop of sliprope and dragged overboard, hitting a buoy before he hit the water. He was recovered by his crew mates and a Port of London Authority launch but was declared dead on the scene.

Ben came from five generations of boatmen and had proposed to his girlfriend Jade just days before the fatal accident. He was on his final year as an apprentice. His father Stephen said at the time: “He was a good waterman, he was a wise head on young shoulders. He was just so full of life.”

Serco, which lost the contract to operate the free ferries in 2013, was found guilty of failing to ensure the health and safety of its crew in a trial lasting eight days at the Inner London Court.

The court heard that the sliprope was in the water and had been dragged into one of the ship’s propellers and investigators from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency concluded procedures had not been recently updated and did not cover the work being carried out.

The Ernest Bevin free Woolwich ferry
The Ernest Bevin free Woolwich ferry

It also became apparent that the crew were not being monitored to ensure compliance with procedures.

Serco Ltd was found guilty of a charge of failing to ensure the health and safety of the crew of the Ernest Bevin under the NS & FV (Health and Safety at Work) Regs 1997. It was cleared of a second separate charge of failing to ensure the safe operation of the Ernest Bevin under Section 100 of the Merchant Shipping Act 1995.

Tragic incident

Passing sentence on Wednesday (October 21), Judge Jeremy Donne said the case was “serious” and there was essentially a disconnect between theory and practice of safety rules.

The company was fined £200,000 with £200,000 costs.

Andrew Rudge, of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency , said: “This was a tragic incident and our sympathy goes out to the family of Ben Woollacott.

“This case serves as a reminder that owners and operators of ships should review their procedures and risk assessments regularly, ensure they are fit for purpose and are being used correctly by their employees.”

Scottish firm Briggs Marine won the contract to run the Woolwich ferry in a £50million seven year deal. The link, popular with HGV drivers, has recently been upgraded to take more weight although its long-term future is in doubt following the review of east London crossings .