• Robert Spicer

Health and safety in prisons: no protection for prisoners?

Health and safety in prisons

Pullen v Prison Commissioners (1957)

From 1951 until 1953 George Pullen served a sentence of imprisonment in Pentonville prison. During most of his sentence, he worked in the prison workshop making coir mats. Dust was given off during this process. In 1954 Pullen was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. He claimed compensation from the Prison Commissioners, who at that time were responsible for prisons. The basis for his claim was that the Commissioners had been in breach of their statutory duty under section 47 of the Factories Act 1937 in failing to take measures to protect him from dust and fumes, and that the Commissioners had been negligent.

On behalf of the Commissioners, it was argued that a prison workshop was not a factory within the meaning of the Factories Act.

The High Court ruled that Pullen’s claim failed and made the following points:

  • A prison workshop was not a factory.

  • The Act of 1937 was designed for the protection of persons working in factories.

  • The Act placed obligations on employers of labour in factories to take various precautions for the protection of their workpeople. It applied to people working under contract and not to prisoners employed on labour as part of penal discipline.

  • If Parliament had intended to include prisons for the purposes of the Factories Act, a reference to prisons would have been inserted.

  • If the definition of “factory” is to apply, there must be a relationship of master and servant and employment for wages. There is no employment for wages in the case of prisoners.

  • The work which is carried on in prisons is work which is penal in the sense that prisoners are obliged to work as a consequence of their sentence.

  • Pullen had not been employed in unhygienic conditions. His health had not been undermined by the conditions in which he was working. There was a certain amount of dust in the place where he was working. An extractor was provided.

  • This had not been a dangerous occupation nor had the conditions under which he worked such as to cause Pullen ill-health.

This decision, that prisoners are not employees of the prison in the course of their work, remains good law. It means that the Health and Safety at Work, etc., Act 1974 cannot normally be invoked by prisoners.

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