david mayes
David Mayes

Two bakery workers died in agony after bosses sent them into a giant oven to carry out repairs on the cheap, a court heard yesterday.

The machine should have been allowed to cool for 12 hours, but was only left for two.

David Mayes and Ian Erickson were unaware of the full danger as they crawled into the oven because fans had cooled its outer reaches to 40c. Its core, however, was still at 100c.

The repair was a delicate procedure in which they had to collect broken parts from along the length of a conveyor belt which carries bread trays slowly through the 75ft-long oven.

They had removed enough trays to allow them space within the rails of the belt to crawl along with it at the same speed.

But within five minutes they were relaying terrified messages over their walkie-talkies, saying the oven was too hot. There was no way of reversing the belt and they were trapped on its journey through the oven.

Mr Erickson, 44, was pulled out at the other end and died on the factory floor in front of horrified workmates

Mr Mayes, 47, collapsed inside and was caught in the machinery. He died from 80 per cent burns and multiple fractures.

The tragedy occurred because the Harvestime bakery in Leicester put productivity above safety, prosecutor Anthony Barker QC, told Leicester Crown Court. Harvestime had been told by the oven's manufacturers that the operation would take four men 12 hours.

The company would have lost £1,120 for every hour the oven was shut down.

The two men were sent into the oven just two hours after it had been baking bread at 260c and managers decided they could go in through the entrance hatch to avoid the cost of removing side panels.

The company, part of the Walsall-based William Price Group, and three of its directors face huge fines after admitting their parts in the tragedy.

Fresha Bakeries Ltd and Harvestime Ltd, Fresha's trading arm, each pleaded guilty to two charges of failing to provide a safe system of work.

Fresha managing director John Bridson, 53, of Hale, Cheshire, admitted two similar charges.

Production director Brian Jones, 59, of Hartford, North-wich, Cheshire, pleaded guilty to a single count of the same offence.

Chief engineer Dennis Masters, 44, of Mountsorrel, Leicestershire, admitted one charge of failing to take reasonable care for others at work.

The court heard that when asked after the deaths if he had set up a 'permit to work' system, Mr Masters replied: '****, I forgot. I'll sort it out now.'

Mr Barker said: 'The work should have been carried out in temperatures of no more than 40 degrees, but the gauges would have read 100 degrees.

'The men were provided with a thin suit, hat and gloves, with protected knee and elbow padding. But these were last-minute thoughts.

'Those men went in when it was hot enough to boil water, in such circumstances where serious injury or death was inevitable.'

On the day of the tragedy in May 1998, Mr Erickson, of Walsall, admitted he wanted to get the job done quickly so he could go home and watch the FA Cup Final with his two sons.

Mr Mayes, of Rushey Mead, Leicestershire, had told friends the night before: 'I have a challenge in the morning. I am going for it - the money is good.'

Coleman Treacy QC, defending, said: 'This was an avoidable accident. The company acknowledges it was at fault.

'It failed in its duty to both men, and that has caused untold heartache to the families. For this we publicly apologise.'

The hearing continues.