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  • Writer's pictureRobert Spicer

Health and safety cases: floors, passages and stairs

This compilation of interesting cases dealing with health and safety aspects of floors, passages and stairs, has been compiled by employment lawyers based in Clifton, Bristol.


Sand base of foundry

Harrison v Metropolitan-Vickers Electrical Co Ltd (1954)

H worked in a foundry. The foundry base was made of casting sand. Pits or holes were prepared in the floor to form moulds for castings. These were filled in after use and then redug as appropriate. Iron sheet walkways were laid on the sand to give access for the carrying of molten metal to the moulds. Molten metal was carried by two men each holding one end of a pole which held a ladle. The pole was about 7 feet long. Having poured the molten metal into a mould H, on one end of the pole, was walking backwards along a metal gangway when he misjudged a corner and fell into a casting hole. Surplus molten metal splashed up from the mould he was helping to carry and landed on his head. He claimed compensation for his injuries.

The issue in the case was whether the sand base of the foundry was a “floor”. The employer argued that it was not a floor because hole were dug in it on an ad hoc basis for the purpose of casting and that a separate system of metal walkways were the floor.

The court found that the sand base was the floor and the pit into which H fell was an unfenced opening. The employer was liable for breach of statutory duty. The base had many uses. Castings and other materials were stored on it. What were they standing on if not the floor?

Planks laid on high-level gantry

Tate v Swan Hunter & Wigham Richardson (1958)

T fell through an opening between planks laid on an 80 foot gantry. The planks were placed above steelwork so that workers could more easily work about. The planks were moveable and did not form a complete platform. Holes were left for ladders to emerge from below. T fell though a hole and suffered fatal injuries. His dependant mother claimed compensation for breach of statutory duty, alleging that the ladder hole was an opening in a floor which should have been fenced.

The court found that the planked area was not a “floor”. The extent of the word “floor” was very difficult to define but it did connote an area, within walls, which was indoors on which people walked or stood.

Slippery duckboard

Harper v Mander & Germain Ltd (1992)

H, an experienced marble polisher, slipped on a duckboard at a marble processing factory. The duckboard was slippery because paste had been allowed to accumulate on it. He claimed compensation for his injuries.

The Court of Appeal held that once it was shown that the accident had been caused by the accumulation of paste on the duckboard, the employer was then at first sight in breach of statutory duty, unless it could be shown that it was not reasonably practicable to keep the duckboard free at all times from a slippery surface.


Passageway to canteen

Davies v De Havilland Aircraft Co Ltd (1950)

D was on his way from the shop floor to the works canteen when he slipped on the floor, fell among some machine tools and was injured. From the evidence it seemed that he had slipped in a patch of oily water held in a slight depression on the floor. Apart from this the floor was of sound construction. D claimed that the passageway was a means of access to his place of work in the wider sense and that it was unsafe. He clamed compensation from his employer.

It was argued on behalf of D that if he had been on his way from the canteen back to his workplace, there would be no doubt that the employer was liable. It was illogical to distinguish between going from a canteen rather than towards it when an injury could happen at the very same spot on the passageway.

The High Court did not accept this argument. It ruled that a canteen was not part of the workplace.

Outdoor road on factory premises

Thomson v Fisher & Ludlow Ltd (1968)

Ms Thornton, a cleaner, was walking to work along a roadway within factory premises at 6.45 a.m. when, in the half light, she stumbled on a coil of wire and injured herself. She clamed compensation from her employer.

The court found that a 30 foot wide roadway with a pavement running its full length could not reasonably be described as a passage. A minority of the judges stated that the road was a passage because it was a route by which people went on foot.

Definition of obstruction

Jenkins v Allied Ironfounders Ltd (1969)

J’s work involved moving freshly moulded cast iron pipes to another section of the factory for finishing. He would collect them from a pile and, together with a colleague, use a small vehicle to transport them. The pipes of the pile, having been only cast on the previous day, still had substantial amounts of solidified casting sand on them. Fins of surplus metal also protruded from the pipes. These fins sometimes fell off in the process of placing the pipes on the pile and then removing them again. They were usually collected and recycled into the smelting process.

After J had cleared one pile of castings he failed to notice that one of these fins, about six inches long, was half buried in the sand floor. He tripped on this and injured his back. He claimed compensation from his employer on the basis that the half-buried fin was an obstruction and it was reasonably practicable to have moved it.

The House of Lords ruled that an obstruction is something on a floor which has no business to be there and which is a source of risk to persons ordinarily using the floor. It does not include objects which are easily seen and put on the floor during the normal course of operations. A heap of components deliberately gathered in one place pending redistribution is not an obstruction. The word “obstruction” is clearly not intended to include easily visible objects properly put on the floor in the course of a proper system of work.

Screw on floor

Gillies v Glynwed Foundries (1977)

G was employed in a factory. His duties included moving loads on a barrow. The wheel of the barrow struck a discarded screw. The barrow swerved and G injured his back. He claimed compensation from his employer.

The claim failed. The employer had a system for cleaning the floor. Although the screw had been an obstruction, it would not have been reasonably practicable to take steps additional to the existing satisfactory system.

Bolt on floor: foreseeability

Paterson v Lothian Regional Council (1992)

P was employed by LRC as a youth training supervisor. He suffered an injury at work when he tripped over a door bolt, which had allegedly fallen from a door, and fell down a flight of steps. He claimed compensation from his employers for breach of statutory duty. At the trial, conflicting evidence was given as to whether the fall had been caused by the bolt and whether the bolt had fallen from the door. At first instance the judge ruled that he was satisfied that, on the balance of probabilities, it had fallen from the door and caused the injury. The bolt was an obstruction. The incident had been the fault of the employer for failing to take reasonable steps to make the bolt secure, despite knowing that it had fallen off on a number of previous occasions. The concept of “obstruction” involved an element of foreseeability.

Obstruction deliberately placed

Erskine v Falcon Catering Equipment Ltd (1997)

E, an employee of F, was injured when he tripped over pieces of wood in F’s store. The employer argued that the pieces of wood did not amount to an obstruction because they had been clearly visible and deliberately placed in the middle of the floor so as not to obstruct access to desks around the room. The needs of other employees had been duly considered. The Scottish court decided that the wood had been placed in the middle of the floor on occasions, but not as part of a system of work. There had been a clear risk to persons ordinarily using the floor. The wood had been an obstruction.

Properly maintained floor

Slippery surface

Latimer v AEC (1953)

L used a hand trolley to carry bins of handbrake components from one location in a factory to another. An exceptionally severe rainstorm had caused flooding in the factory. Floodwater covered a substantial part of the factory floor. This water became contaminated with cooling oil used on lathes in the factory. When the floodwater receded, a slippery oily film was left on the floor. The employer kept a quantity of sawdust for spillages but there was not enough to cover all the slippery area.

L was trying to lift a bin of components which weighed approximately 200 kg. He manoeuvred the platform part of the trolley under the bin, put his right foot on the trolley axle and began to tilt the bin. His foot slipped on the oily surface and the full weight of the trolley fell onto him. He claimed compensation for his injuries on the basis that the employer had failed to keep the floors properly maintained.

The House of Lords ruled as follows:

  • In order for a floor to be properly maintained, its structure must be sound and must not have deteriorated to an excessive degree. Short-term obstructions on the floor, or exceptional conditions of the surface due to some unexpected outside interference are not included.

  • A floor might be improperly maintained if it was so highly waxed as to be slippery, for here the waxed surface is a long-term condition. But temporary incursion onto the surface of a floor which was otherwise perfectly sound did not cause it to be improperly maintained.

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