Personal Injury
By Conal McGarrity
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What Constitutes a Safe Working Environment?

There is a heavy burden placed on employers to ensure health and safety in the workplace. Employers are under a duty to take reasonable care to ensure their employees health and safety at work. Importantly, this duty can not be delegated. This means that an employer will be held to have breached their duty of care if those they have entrusted with responsibility (a manager or supervisor for example) fail to exercise reasonable care in respect of an employee’s safety.

Therefore, an employer can not escape liability by arguing that they themselves had acted reasonably. What this means in practice is that the factual responsibility for an employee’s health and safety can, and often will be, delegated. However, the legal responsibility cannot be delegated and will always fall on the employer.

An Employer Can Be Liable In Tort In The Following Ways:

  1. An employer owes a common law duty of care to their employees. If this is breached they may be liable for harm caused to their employees.

  2. An employer owes certain statutory duties to employees and may be liable for harm caused due to a breach of a specific statutory duty.

  3. An employer may also be vicariously liable for injuries caused by an act or omission of another employee which causes injury to a colleague in the course of their employment.

An employers duty of care for creating a safe working environment can be broken down in to four broad categories, which include;

  1. A competent workforce.

  2. Provision of adequate material and equipment.

  3. Ensuring a proper system of work is in place.

  4. Ensuring a safe workplace for employees.

Competent Workforce

Employers have a duty to ensure that all employees meet a certain level of competence in order to ensure the safety of other employees. To effectively satisfy this obligation employers must provide effective training and supervision to employees where necessary. Failure to do so could result in employees being vicariously liable for harm caused to an employee by another employee. For example, if a new employee on a building site drops a heavy block on to a colleague’s foot and causes an injury, the employer may be vicariously liable for any loss or damage caused.

Adequate Material and Equipment

Employers have a duty to provide adequate equipment (including personal protective equipment) and to provide training or instruction on how to properly use it. This is a common law duty but is also supplemented by statute so the burden on the employer to comply with their duty of care in respect of providing adequate materials and equipment is quite high. This duty also extends to the maintenance and repair of faulty equipment.

A Proper System of Work

Employers have a duty to ensure a reasonably safe system of work is in place and employees have general safety instructions on implementing that system of work. Factors that should be considered for providing a safe system of work include the layout of a job, the sequence in which work is carried out and the provision of warnings or notices if necessary.

Employers must also take reasonable steps to ensure that the system of work is implemented correctly. This will often require the supervision of employees or regular training workshops, particularly for new or inexperienced employees. In apportioning liability the Court will consider a variety of factors in relation to the system of work, including; the place of work, the nature of the work, the experience of the employee and the degree of control exercised by the employer.

A Safe Workplace

This is a broad duty on employers to ensure that there is a safe workplace for employees. This does not mean that employers must ensure that a workplace is completely safe and there is a 0% chance of an accident happening. It simply means that an employer’s care and provision for employees must not fall below the standard of a ‘reasonable and prudent employer’.

Essentially, compliance with all of the above will be necessary to create a safe working environment. The threshold for a safe working environment is quite high and employers should diligently take steps to mitigate any potential risk to their employees. If they fail to do so and an employee is injured, then the employer may be liable to a claim for compensation.

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