Employers, as many of us probably know, have a legal duty to protect their staff. While employees are engaged in their day-to-day duties, even if they are not physically in the workplace, they are under the protection of their company.
One major part of this duty involves regularly carrying out risk assessments. As the name suggests, these checks are designed to ensure that workers are not exposed to any unnecessarily dangerous procedures or equipment while they perform their duties. Failure to perform these checks can, and often does, result in serious injuries and even death.
Two stories in the news recently demonstrate what can happen when procedures are not followed by supervisors.
Paul Gelder, from East Ardsley in West Yorkshire, was helping to unload a delivery from a lorry as part of his temporary job with UPS (Supply Chain Solutions) in Wakefield 41 industrial estate in November 2008.
The agency worker, 52, was trying to adjust a docking ramp that would not extend far enough to reach the trailer of a container lorry that he was about to unload. The automated system was not sufficient to achieve this and so Mr Gelder and his son Colin attempted to move the ramp by hand. Suddenly, as the lorry was reversing towards the dock, he slipped and became trapped between the lorry and the wall of the dock.
He suffered a broken pelvis, two broken hips and a ruptured bladder in the accident, and now suffers from associated depressive problems due to his injuries. He also required a permanent metal bar to be placed in his back to hold the pelvic bones in place.
In court it was agreed that, if his employers had carried out sufficient risk assessment, Mr Gelder’s accident could have been avoided.
The court heard that he was not given any formal training so that he would know how to unload container vehicles properly. The court heard that a ‘“make it up as you go along” system’ seemed to prevail in the warehouse.
A spokesman for Mr Gelder’s employers said that, although all employees would have been given training in how to use the relevant equipment and given risk assessment advice, there was no official record of Mr Gelder himself having received it.
Iain Daniels, mitigating, said that risk assessments had been carried out but they had not been communicated to temporary staff like the victim in this case.
An even more worrying lapse led to severe injury for maintenance worker Tom Williams.
He was asked to move a pillar, ironically as part of health and safety exercise, at Manor Bakeries in Moreton, Wirral, in July 2008.
The 61 year old used a saw to cut through the pillar, which was secured at both the ceiling and floor ends. Unable to remove the pillar entirely using this method, Mr Williams was using a crowbar when the pillar suddenly snapped and the top section, weighing 65kg, fell from the ceiling and landed on his head, causing him severe brain damage and spinal injuries, and was in hospital for six months. To this day he still has difficulty moving and speaking, and his wife has had to become his full-time carer.
Both these cases demonstrate what can happen when workers are given free reign to perform ‘ad hoc’ jobs without correct supervision. Both companies mentioned have been fined heavily for their breach of duty to their employees, and this leaves the door open for both men to make a work accident claim for compensation.
Even if there is some evidence that the men contributed to their accident, as has been explicitly suggested in Mr Williams’ case, the main burden still lies with the companies that are supposed to be looking after them.
Employers also are legally obliged to hold indemnity insurance so that, in the event of a tragedy like those above occurring, they can afford to pay compensation to their injured staff.