Court gives up to date guidance on PPE

Hull City Council has recently found itself embroiled in a claim for damages from one of their employees who was working on maintenance of the gardens of unoccupied Council houses. It was necessary to remove rubbish and debris and the workers were provided with litter pickers, rakes and shovels. It became clear that former tenants or others had deposited black plastic bags of rubbish in the garden and these had to be manually handled. It was whilst handling one of these bags that the Claimant sustained an injury to his left hand. The precise means of injury was unclear but eventually the judge accepted that the injury had been caused when the Claimant had grabbed something with a degree of force which was sufficient for some sharp object to have penetrated his glove and to have severed an artery and tendon in his left little finger. 

The case had two hearings when the Claimant was unsuccessful but those two earlier decisions were reversed by the Court of Appeal in a judgment which is of significance. As can be appreciated, the key Regulations being considered were the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992. Those Regulations require every employer to ensure that suitable personal protective equipment is provided to employees who may be exposed to a risk to their health and safety at work. The Regulations specifically outline that personal protective equipment is not suitable unless it is appropriate for the risks involved and the conditions where the risk may occur. The Regulations require an employer to make an assessment to determine whether the personal protective equipment intended to be provided is, in fact, suitable. 

The Council defended the case on the basis that the risk of injury to their employee was very low in the context of training and equipment provided, contending in particular that the gloves supplied were adequate for the work being carried out. However, the Court of Appeal decided that the Council`s risk assessment was too general as it did not take into account specific risks from sharp objects that were hidden. This is where the court made important observations. 

They indicated that effectiveness was at the heart of the question as to what equipment was suitable. The first question, therefore, is whether the proposed item of protective equipment prevented or adequately controlled the identified risk. If the answer is no, the equipment is unsuitable no matter how appropriate it might be. The object is to ensure that when an adverse event occurs, that the protective equipment either prevents any injury at all or protects the worker in a way that he does not suffer significant injury. The Court concluded that the standard issue gloves were not effective to prevent or adequately control the risk of injury. The Court therefore allowed the appeal and the Claimant was successful.

Two things can be taken from this case, one directly and the other more indirectly. Firstly, the true test now is one of effectiveness, which might well impact on a choice of what is truly protective equipment. The indirect result is that all manufacturers and suppliers have a general duty to sell products which are safe. After this judgment there is arguably more chance of them getting it wrong and being vulnerable to claims from others involved in an incident such as this.

Posted on: 31/05/2011

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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