Controlling the Controllables - the importance of risk assessments

Published: January 6th, 2023

7 min read

Cleveland Fire Authority recently pleaded guilty to breaching section 2(1) of the Health and Safety At Work Act 1974 after the Health and Safety Executive found that they had not assessed the risks posed by a training exercise in which a firefighter sustained significant injuries to his legs.

The crew were engaged in a training exercise and setting up a simulated road traffic collision in which the vehicle was on its roof. In the process of moving the vehicle into position, the vehicle fell onto the firefighter causing several fractures to his legs and feet.

S2(1) of the Health and Safety at work Act 1974 states "It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practical, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees." It would be an enormous leap to expect a fire authority to be able to ensure the safety of its employees as they heroically run into a burning building, however, in the course of a training exercise, there are significant steps that can be taken to control the surroundings and ensure the safety of all involved.

Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Psychiatrist, famously said "control the controllables" which is exactly what risk assessing is all about. It allows an employer to evaluate hazards, then remove them or reduce them to the lowest possible level - controlling the controllable.

What should the fire Authority have done?

Prior to the training exercise taking place and as part of the general planning for the exercise, they ought to have considered the following:

  1. Identifying any hazards - in this case, a vehicle being tipped over and at stages being lifted on tilt presents a hazard.
  2. Assess the risk - the who and how; who might be harmed by the hazard identified and how might they be harmed. In this case, the firefighters engaged in tipping over the vehicle, may be harmed if the vehicle fell in an unintended way.
  3. Control that risk - the employer needs to do everything "reasonably possible" to protect people from harm. Could different equipment have been used to move the vehicle? Could the personnel have been positioned differently? Was there an alternative way to move the vehicle?
  4. Record - all of the above should be recorded in detail so that the control measures could be employed again, or re-assessed if unsuccessful.

What did the Court find?

The case went before District Judge Cousins at Teeside Magistrates Court who heard that no risk assessment was conducted prior to the training exercise. As a result, the Fire Authority was fined £600 and ordered to pay £7,304.83 costs and £190 victim surcharge.

District Judge Cousins said she believed the fire authority had low culpability, though there was a medium likelihood of harm. She went on to say "There is no public interest in taking money from one public pot and putting it in a fines public pot.

"From a financial point of view, I struggle to find the fine being anything other than a nominal number."

Conclusion

The level of fine received was somewhat out of the norm for a public body. The Sentencing Guidelines sets out how to determine the size of the organisation for "local authorities, fire authorities, and similar public bodies" by reference to the "annual revenue budget" as the best indication of the size of the organisation. The injured firefighter has made a good recovery and been reinstated as a firefighter and the Judge took a pragmatic approach to the financial position. Risk Assessments are not to be dismissed as a "tick box" exercise. They are a vital component in keeping employees safe. Accidents can and do happen, but a comprehensive risk assessment can ensure that those accidents are just that, accidents. They can and do save lives and money.

For more information contact Ridwaan Omar at Ridwaan Omar or Sam Abdoollah at Samantha Abdoollah

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