Employers' Liability And Interpretation Of Workplace Regulations


04 August, 2011

The Court of Appeal on the 27th July 2011 delivered a judgment in the case of Broadfield v Meyrick Management Limited and was required to consider whether an employer had been in breach of its duty to provide a suitable and sufficient handrail along the entire length of a staircase.

Briefly, while at work B had tripped and fallen down a small flight of stairs onto a small landing. Her momentum carried her down a longer flight of stairs and as a result she was injured.

There had been a handrail which ran along part of the staircase and B alleged that this was in breach of regulation 12(5) of the Workplace regulations which require a "suitable and sufficient handrails… except in circumstances where a handrail can not be provided without obstructing the traffic route."
B had contended that the handrail should have been continuous along the entire length in accordance with the Approved code of practice issued by the Health and Safety Commission.

The trial judge found that the although the handrail was not continuous it was nevertheless suitable and sufficient, the exception applied in that handrail could not have been provided without obstructing the traffic route and even had a continuous handrail been provided B would not have used it to prevent her from falling and therefore causation had not been established.

The Court of Appeal held that Official publications from government departments could be referred to as an aid to construction of the relevant regulations as it provided practical guidance to employers as to how to comply with their duties under the regulations and provided assistance as to the meaning of the regulations. However, what was suitable and sufficient depended on the individual circumstances of the case.

The Court further held that the overriding objective of the code of practice was to protect employees from harm and that was the interpretation that was to be preferred. The code of practice best explained how this was to be achieved. The burden on establishing an exception to the regulation was with the employer to prove. In this case, there was little evidence from the employer that it had been impossible to provide a handrail. Therefore, breach of duty was established.

However, the trial judge's finding on causation was not interfered with by the Court of Appeal as this was considered a matter of fact for the trial judge to determine having heard the evidence. The appeal was therefore dismissed.

Forbes Comment

The case re-iterates previous Court of Appeal guidance on the use of Approved Codes of Practice in workplace accident claims. It also reminds us that should employers intend to rely on exceptions contained within the regulations then the onus of proving the same will be on them to produce cogent evidence. Ensuring suitable and sufficient risk assessments are undertaken may well assist employers from identifying areas of risk and what effective control measures should be in place. Whilst the case did not succeed on causation, employers should expect Courts to have regard to the objectives of workplace regulations namely to safeguard employees health and safety and to interpret the regulations accordingly.

As to the future, watch this space on developments on the likelihood of further guidance or codes of practice being revised following the government review of workplace rules led by Professor Lofstedt, on whether there is inappropriate litigation and compensation and whether changes are needed to clarify the legal position of employers.

If you require any further information on this case or any other employer & public liability related matters then please do not hesitate to contact Ridwaan Omar on 01254 662831 or email Ridwaan Omar

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