Employee Foolishness No Defence in Health and Safety Cases

In a case which vividly illustrates the exacting health and safety standards placed on industrial employers, a flooring company was convicted and fined over an accident which an injured employee accepted had in part resulted from his own foolishness.

The employee, an engineer with 20 years' experience, was attempting to realign a roller on a machine used to assist in the recycling of unused vinyl products. The roller had become blocked and the machine needed tracking. He had pushed a spanner into the workings of a moving conveyor belt in an attempt to prevent rubbing. He agreed that that was an extremely unwise thing to do. His arm was broken when it was pulled into the machinery and he had to take seven weeks off work.

The company was subsequently convicted of an offence under Section 33(1)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was fined £7,500 and ordered to pay £34,000 in costs. The trial judge had earlier rejected the company's plea that, on the facts of the case, the prosecution had presented no case to answer.

In challenging the conviction before the Court of Appeal, the company argued that it was the injured man's foolishness that had caused the accident. It was submitted that any system of work carried with it a risk that an employee may do something unwise but that that did not render the system itself unsafe.

In dismissing the appeal, however, the Court ruled that the case had rightly been left to the jury to decide. The prosecution had produced sufficient evidence of exposure to risk, and neither foreseeability nor causation were necessary elements of the offence. The conveyor belt had been running with its guards removed during maintenance work and employees had thus been exposed to a clear, obvious and material risk to their health and safety.

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