We recently secured over a million pounds for one of our clients. That sounds a huge amount until you reflect on what happened. It was a normal day at work when our client, heading to pop the kettle on, was struck by a five foot scaffolding on his head.
- Susanne Baldwin is a solicitor at Spencers Solicitors with over 14 years’ experience in personal injury law including those in relation to accidents at work. If you’d like to follow Susanne on Google +, click here
He is left with permanent brain damage and right-sided hemi-paresis, injury to the left side of the brain. He is unable to wash himself, dress himself or even use the bathroom in the middle of the night unassisted.
The employers attempted to hold our client partly liable for his injuries, because he ‘had failed to cross the site using a route away from the scaffolds’. The employers had failed to designate a safe route and were found to be negligent. But even if they had – how many of us could vow that they would actually know the correct route?
For the average worker, the phrase ‘Health & Safety in the workplace’ is one that might make you yawn. It’s that session you have to sit through at the start of each new job, the forms you have to fill in on the first day, and the alarm bell which means you have to file out into the car park or on the muddy grass for what feels like no reason at all.
The majority of us would spare little thought to the placement of a fire extinguisher or the proper emergency routes in case of a fire.
Employers on the other hand simply cannot afford to dismiss H&S in the same way. As our client’s case suggests, some British companies still do not take health and safety standards seriously and have a lazy approach to the health and welfare of their employees – potentially exposing some employees to serious injuries from which they may never recover.
I recently read about the Doncaster worker awarded ‘a six figure payout’, as the article headline put it. Well deserved, I’d say as the picture showed the 63 year old man holding up his hands, with four stumps on one. His left hand had been dragged into the industrial saw – all fingers and thumb sawn off in a matter of seconds.
The employee should have been given a little more than the thin rubber gloves that provided no protection against the unguarded blade.
Again back in July, another incident. The Liverpool Echo reported how two maintenance workers tragically died while working on a conveyor belt at the Sonae plant in Kirkby, Merseyside. The belt was somehow triggered into motion while both men operated on it, causing each to be dragged into the machine.
The belt should have been isolated from its power supply.
At the inquest, the jury heard how Sonae’s supervisor had explained where to find the belt’s isolation points but had failed to physically show them to the workers. It was also revealed that the ‘local isolation of the conveyor was neither confirmed nor checked throughout the day up to the time of death’.
Now no amount of compensation will be able to bring these workers back.
We’re not here to judge the supervisors, these organisations, or their health and safety standards on a whole, but as standalone cases, they demonstrate just how cutting workplace H&S corners can lead to severe consequences.
The final case also goes to show that regular demonstrations were clearly required to ensure that all employees knew where the isolation points were. Such demonstrations may have prevented the death of the employees.
The international picture
But is this lazy approach towards H&S exclusive to Britain? No.
In 2009 the UK recorded the second-lowest rate of fatal workplace injuries in Europe; with 133 on file. Compared to France, which logged a total of 492 and has a similar-sized population and economy, this figure is notably low.
Whilst this gives us a sense of the bigger picture it also confirms that we work in a relatively ‘safe’ country, however the recent changes in the law may muddy the water.
In all the cases I’ve just mentioned, the employers had breached one of the health and safety regulations. However the law changed on 1st October 2013, and a breach of the regulations does not now give an injured employee an automatic right to make a claim in the civil courts for compensation.
In the majority of cases now the injured employee will have to prove that their employer had been negligent and this negligence was the cause of the accident.
This change in law has meant that some cases that would have been successful before 1st October 2013, would struggle to succeed now based purely on health and safety regulations. To try and explain this in more detail, take a hypothetical case of Mr X.
Part of his job involves riding a bicycle which is provided by his employers. Mr X has an accident when the brake cable on his bike fails and he is thrown from his bike sustaining a nasty injury.
His employers Y & Co may not be found to be negligent as they have exercised reasonable care by implementing a programme of inspection and maintenance. However they will be found to be in breach of their duty under the health and safety regulations to maintain the bicycle in an efficient state and in good working order. Mr X will succeed in his claim against the employers and will recover damages.
However after 1st October 2013, Mr X’s claim will not succeed if it is brought using only the health and safety regulations. Mr X will be unable to rely on the breach of duty under the Work Equipment Regulations as the change in the law has removed strict liability for breaches of the health and safety regulations.
My colleague, Samantha Ibrahim, listed three further major concerns around a new piece of legislation – the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill, section 69:
- The claimant needs to provide extensive evidence that the accident was caused through negligence. Therefore, the defending employer needn’t take too many measures to prove their implementation of H&S standards were ‘reasonable’ at the time of the injury.
- It could indirectly encourage employers to be less focused on H&S in general; as the change in law may mean that less employer’s liability claims succeed.
- In addition, injury figures may increase, while a lower percentage of victims will receive fair compensation.
The percentage of workplace accident victims being adequately compensated is already low. In an eye-opening piece from Hazards Magazine, it was revealed just one in seven workplace accident/illness claimants received compensation as a result of an accident at work in 2011-12.
As employees our dismissive attitude towards seemingly irrelevant and boring H&S videos and procedures needs to stop. Yes, it is the duty of the employer to maintain a safe environment on our behalf, but we have to take some responsibility too.