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Do employers do enough to guard the safety of their workers?

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I recently read about a Blackburn packaging firm has appeared in court after an investigation into a worker’s injury revealed safety standards described as ‘appalling’.

Europlast (Blackburn) Ltd was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after an employee had part of a finger amputated after his left hand became trapped in unguarded machinery in June 2012.

It was discovered by the HSE that two other workers had been injured in similar machinery incidents less than nine months earlier. As confirmed by the HSE, there were numerous safety guards were missing or disabled on machines, and workers had not been given suitable training.

Preston Crown Court heard that the 26-year-old employee from Blackburn, who has asked not to be named, had been working on a machine used to produce bubble wrap when the incident happened at the plant at Shadsworth Business Park on 6 June 2012.

The worker was trying to remove small pieces of plastic which had become stuck when his hand was pulled in between two rollers. It remained trapped for several minutes before another employee eventually found the emergency stop button.

He suffered burns and crush injuries to his hand, required skin grafts and had to have the top half of his middle finger amputated. The court was told two other workers had also suffered injuries when their hands became trapped in machinery in April 2012 and September 2011.

HSE first made the company aware of the need to guard dangerous machine parts during a visit to the site in September 2009. This warning was repeated in July 2011 when an external health and safety consultant highlighted ‘intolerable risks’ from missing guards on machines at the factory.

This got me thinking: do employers do enough to safe guard the safety of their workers? There have been concerns in the media over the cost of claims in recent years which sparked Lord Justice Jackson’s review of civil litigation costs which has resulted in the current civil justice reforms. Many government officials are of the opinion that the UK has acquired a “compensation culture” and that health and safety law itself needed reform. This is where Section 69 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 steps in. The new Act means that:

  • Claimants can no longer allege direct causes of action based on breaches of the regulations where the accident occurs on or after 1 October 2013.
  • Instead, their claims will be for negligence, based on their employer’s alleged breach of the common law duty of care owed by employers, the law on which has been  developed over the years.
  • The burden of proof will be on claimants throughout, rather than, as sometimes occurs under the regulations, part of that burden being on the employer to show that it took reasonably practicable steps to achieve an objective.

The main difficulty, I think, with your new Act will be with Accidents involving machinery. Previously, it was relatively easy to establish liability in factory based accidents both under the Factories Act, and then under the broader application of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations , but now people injured in this manner will now be left in a more awkward situation where they will have to prove some fault in the employer's maintenance and servicing of the machine, or knowledge of a particular defect. This limiting of employer’s liability may endanger employees and put them at a higher risk of injury. It has yet to be seen whether these changes will increase the numbers in relation to accidents at work but it definitely remains an uncertainty. 

 

By: Lesley Layton


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