As severe weather warnings sweep the country, employers are being encouraged to double check their risk assessments.
And following an important decision by the High Court last year, there’s a reminder that risk analysis is not a question of dull probability and companies should use their most imaginative staff to dream up unlikely scenarios to protect employees.
The High Court case involved a plumber employed by the University of Anglia, who was asked to mend a leaky radiator in the University library. He found that the dripping radiator had soaked the surrounding floor, so to avoid getting his clothes wet he covered the area with plastic bin bags before lying down to carry out the repair.
But when he had finished the repair and stood up, he slipped on the wet bin bags and fell heavily, hitting his face and damaging his teeth.
He sued the University, arguing that he should have been provided with waterproof clothing – saying that the need would have been identified if the University had carried out a proper risk assessment and considered the risk of his working in wet conditions.
The case was heard first in the County Court, where the judge said that the University should have provided a waterproof mat as a matter of health and safety, not just comfort, as the plumber might have caught a cold if he had spent the rest of the day in wet clothes. But the judge also decided that there was 50% contributory negligence on the part of the plumber himself.
The University appealed, arguing that there was no foreseeable risk of injury from damp clothes, merely a risk of discomfort, but the High Court dismissed this and upheld the original decision.
Andrew Shipp, a litigator with Gardner Leader comments: “This case illustrates how tough the courts continue to be when it comes to cases of employers’ liability. What may seem to be minor details can have major consequences and employers need to think far outside the obvious.
“You may think that the plumber brought his injuries upon himself, as he took the decision to put bin liners on the floor. But although the resulting accident was caused by a freak of chance, it is not unforeseeable that plumbers will get their clothes wet. With the severe weather forecasts for February, it’s worth taking some time out to see where you might need to review and update your risk assessments and processes.
“You need to cover all bases as far as possible, as well as keeping up to date with current requirements. And the people doing the job are often best equipped to identify the risks, so it’s worth involving relevant staff in the process.”