The factory can be a dangerous environment and whilst there have been improvements in worker safety over recent decades there is still room for improvement.
The main source of safety improvements has been the imposition of European legislation over the last 20 years, which built on the 1961 and 1974 Factories Acts. This legislation covers a wide area of activities in the workplace, and ensures that risk assessments are at the centre of operations.
Machinery injuries and strict liability
In factories, machinery poses a particular risk. The regulations mean that if a machinery is defective, for whatever reason, and this causes injury to a worker, then the employer will be liable to pay compensation for those injuries. This is one of the few examples of ‘strict liability’ in UK law, where it is not necessary to prove fault on the part of the defendant. Strict liability is imposed in this situation for the protection of workers – there is an inequality of status between the employee and employer, which would make it difficult for the employee to produce the necessary evidence to prove that a machine malfunctioned because of some negligence on the part of the employer.
So for example, Osbornes acted for Mrs V, a Bulgarian lady who worked in an industrial bakery in London and spoke little English. She was operating a machine on the production line, a machine she was trained on and had no problems with before, when suddenly and without warning part of the machine, a metal block, swung out and hit her on the head, throwing her across the factory floor and knocking her out. She was unable to say what the part was and how or why it ejected from the machine and she had no details of witnesses. Proving fault on the part of her employer would have been extremely difficult, but because the machine had malfunctioned the employers were strictly liable and so she was compensated for the head injury that interfered with her work for the next three years.
Strict liability does not apply to most other work activities, so for most employees it is necessary to prove the cause of an accident and to show that the employer was at fault in some way. Fortunately there are other regulations that help, because they impose various safety duties on employers. Legislation controls how machinery and other work equipment is used and how the factory is organised, so that worker safety is taken into a consideration. For example, many factories have vehicles such as forklift trucks and pallet trucks moving about on the ‘shop floor’ and there are rules about how pedestrian walkways should be used to keep traffic away from pedestrians. This is elementary safety procedure but it is surprising how many cases we come across where a factory worker has been injured by a vehicle that has been allowed to operate in an area where pedestrians are moving about.
Hazardous and toxic substances are often used in the manufacturing process, and there are regulations designed specifically to control their use so as to minimise the dangers to health and safety.
Common sense approach
Much is said about the ‘health and safety culture’ and the need to apply a common sense approach to risks and to reduce the burden of bureaucracy. This may be true in some areas, but in the factory setting it is vital that there are proper rules, strictly applied, to make sure that employers take their responsibilities for worker safety seriously. So it is a real concern that the Government has rushed through parliament an amendment to the Enterprise Bill to prevent injured workers relying on the safety regulations in a claim for compensation. If the amendment is made law accident victims will once again have to rely on proving negligence by their employers and we will be left with a Victorian style safety regime where it will be much more difficult to succeed with a claim against an employer.