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The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 came into force in 1993 and have since then proved invaluable in ensuring that people at work are provided with suitable and effective equipment to protect them against risks to their health and safety. PPE can range from safety goggles to waterproof clothing to facemarks. Failure to provide PPE can result in the employer being held responsible for a personal injury claim or even being prosecuted and fined by the Health and Safety Executive.
For an employer, there are two questions they must ask in deciding if PPE is needed. Firstly, is there a risk of injury to their employees? And secondly, can that risk be avoided by anything other than PPE? If there is a risk which can only be avoided by PPE then “suitable” protective equipment must be provided. What exactly constitutes suitable PPE should be decided by an employer following a risk assessment.
In a recent claim for personal injury a council worker, Mr Threlfall, cut himself on a sharp object which was hidden in a pile of rubbish. His employers, Hull City Council, had provided Mr Threlfall with gardening gloves to wear when clearing a garden of rubbish but in a decision that was much reported in the press the court found the council at fault as they had provided “the wrong type of gloves”. The case was presented in the newspapers as a ‘heath and safety gone mad’ type of story. However, what was less well reported was the reason why the court had reached its decision.
When the council had looked at the work Mr Threlfall was going to have to do they carried out a risk assessment. They saw that no employee had ever suffered a cut when clearing gardens and so reached the conclusion that there was no risk of an employee being cut. By the council’s logic, if there was no risk of being cut then there was no need to provide gloves to prevent this, hence gardening gloves were provided, rather then cut-resistant gloves.
The court decided that this risk assessment was inadequate. The council had no knowledge of what would be in the rubbish bags. There was a very real possibility that there may be sharp objects hidden in the waste being handled by Mr Threlfall, so the only way of controlling the risk was by providing “suitable” and “effective” PPE; namely cut resistant gloves.
The court’s decision means that for many employers, risk assessments which would previously have been sufficient could now be deemed inadequate. This is good news for people injured at work who wish to claim compensation. For employers, the ruling suggests that they should consider reviewing and updating their PPE risk assessments without delay to avoid being found similarly liable for an accident in the workplace which could have been avoided by more suitable PPE.