Legal Q&A Safety at work

Slips and trips are the most common causes of workplace injuries, with almost 11,000 major accidents each year. This month the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) launched a new initiative aimed at reducing the number of slips, trips and falls in the workplace – targeting, in particular, construction workers, electricians and kitchen managers.

Q These types of accidents are usually trivial, so what’s the big deal?

A The potential for slips and trips in the workplace should not be under-estimated. Circumstances giving rise to such incidents are varied and, therefore, the precautions needed to prevent them are wide-ranging.

The HSE estimates that 38% of all major injuries arise through slipping and tripping, at a cost of £512m a year. It is now launching its ‘Shattered Lives’ campaign to highlight the risk and hopefully minimise the occurrence of such accidents.

It is likely that the HSE will be inspecting the working practices of more employers as a result.

Q What can give rise to slips and trips in the workplace?

A There are innumerable potential causes. Employees can trip over obstacles left by others on walkways, slip in spillages of things like food or oil, or have an accident because the flooring or stairways are poorly constructed or maintained.

Employers should ensure that stairways are fitted with high-visibility, non-slip edging and handrails, and make sure there is sufficient lighting. Also, employee footwear may not be appropriate for the work environment, and the employer has a duty to provide suitable clothing if there are any hazardous risks of slipping at work.

While cleaning slippery areas can remove potential hazards, care must be taken to ensure that wet floors are not accessible at all, and that any polishing does not leave a slippery film.

Q Where should an employer start when considering the potential for slips and trips in the workplace?

A The cornerstone for ensuring the safety of their premises is a risk assessment. The purpose of this is to prevent or, if that is not possible, to adequately control any potential hazards.

For each possible risk, the risk assessment should, as a starting point, highlight how these risks can be avoided or at least controlled as far as possible.

Q Even with the most stringent systems, slips will still occur isn’t it unfair to make the employer liable?

A There is some comfort for employers here, depending on the nature and frequency of the hazard. In general, all floors must be kept free from obstructions and substances that may cause a person to slip, trip or fall, so far as is reasonably practicable.

Therefore, if reasonable measures such as cleaning, matting and cordoning off have been taken, then an employer may escape liability.

Q What actions must an employer take to minimise such risks and defend claims?

A In extreme cases, floors or stairways may need to be replaced or redesigned, but employers should seek the HSE’s advice before doing so.

Generally, it will be enough to display documented systems of, for example: staff training regular inspections, cleaning and maintenance of machinery and premises and accident reporting and investigation.

Workers must be encouraged to report all accidents immediately to ensure useful investigations can be carried out.

Q Are employers liable if obstacles are left dangerously by their employees and someone falls over them?

A Generally, yes. That is why the culture at work in relation to health and safety is pivotal, and employers really need to educate staff on general ‘housekeeping’. This will encourage greater compliance and can be useful if an individual injured in a fall seeks to claim in respect of a tripping hazard that they should have cleared themselves.

It is unrealistic to expect to prevent accidents altogether, but preventing or controlling the foreseeable hazards in the workplace will help to create a safer working environment and protect employers from potential liability, while helping them to defend themselves against expensive compensation claims.

Peter Forshaw, partner, Weightmans 

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