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Health and Safety Duties Are Strict – But Not Limitless

Health and safety rules impose strict duties on employers and workplace occupiers – however, one important Court of Appeal case has underlined that liability will only arise in respect of accidents that are reasonably foreseeable.

The case concerned a police station detention officer who was injured whilst moving an overweight and drunk prisoner to a cell. She and a colleague had the prisoner in an arm lock when they encountered a half-open door in a corridor. Her colleague had to release his grip on the prisoner in order to open the door fully. At that point, the prisoner suddenly went to ground, pulling the officer to the floor and crushing her left arm. She sustained an injury to her dominant left wrist.

In claiming compensation from the chief constable of the relevant police force on her behalf, her lawyers argued that the half-open door created a hazard and amounted to a breach of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992. Her claim was, however, rejected by a judge on the basis that leaving the door ajar did not present any foreseeable risk of injury.

In dismissing her appeal against that decision, the Court found that it was obviously correct. The police station contained 27 cells and five detention rooms, and the notion that every time one of their doors was left partially open there was created a material risk of injury lacked reality. Whilst expressing profound sympathy for the officer, the Court found that she had suffered the sort of unfortunate accident that could have arisen in almost any circumstances in any police station.