Work equipment and the application of PUWER

Work equipment and the application of PUWERThe Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) expand the general rule set out in s.2 of the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, which requires employers to provide and maintain safe equipment, plant and work systems. PUWER applies to all work equipment, including items that are leased, hired or second-hand. The regulations apply to most workplaces.

“Work equipment” is broadly defined as including any machinery, appliance, apparatus or tool, assembly or components which work together to function as a whole. Case law examples of this, which illustrate the breadth of the definition, include:

  • A postman’s delivery bicycle
  • Vehicles supplied for use at work
  • A drinks vending machine
  • A railway signalling system
  • A metal fence
  • A lift in an office building
  • A train driver’s cab seat.

Firefighters injured in garage fire

The most recent case applying PUWER is French and another v Strathclyde Fire Board (2013, Scottish Outer House). The facts, in summary, were that two firefighters, F and D, were injured during the course of their employment when fighting a fire at a garage.

When they arrived at the fire, part of the roof of the garage had been destroyed and a car inside was alight. The watch commander, following a risk assessment, told F to use a Halligan tool (a multipurpose forcible entry tool) to enter the garage through the front door. As he attempted to do so, the brickwork above the door collapsed onto him. Evidence was given that the fire could have been effectively fought from a side window. There was no requirement to open the front door. The burning away of the roof had left the brickwork above the main door weak and unsupported, and the use of the Halligan tool caused vibrations that led to the collapse. The watch commander should have recognised the garage as a dangerous structure and the incident had been avoidable and foreseeable.

Further evidence was given that fighting the fire from the main door was a recognised standard fire-fighting technique. The watch commander had carried out a suitable risk assessment and his actions had been reasonable in the circumstances. High temperatures could have caused the lintel above the door to expand, causing the brickwork to collapse.

F sought compensation in common law negligence and for breaches of regulations 3 and 4 of PUWER.

The Scottish court found that F’s employer was liable. It made the following points.

  • The fire could have been brought under control through the side door and the lower panel of the front door
  • It was probable that the use of the Halligan tool had caused vibrations in the structure
  • The watch commander should have realised that ordering F into the area under the wall was inherently hazardous
  • The watch commander had failed, as a skilled officer in his position, to exercise reasonable care and to realise the danger presented by the wall
  • Where it was reasonably foreseeable to a skilled firefighter that the use of the Halligan tool where the wall was unstable and liable to collapse, liability arose under regulation 4 of the 1998 Regulations. This regulation imposes strict liability where an employer fails to ensure that work equipment is suitable for the purposes for which it is used or provided
  • F had not been contributorily negligent. The primary responsibility for safety fell on the watch commander as the officer in charge and it would not have been reasonable to expect F to double check his risk assessment.

Firefighter injured by ram

Another relatively recent case involving firefighters and work equipment is Pennington v Surrey County Council and Surrey Fire and Rescue Service (2007).

P was a firefighter employed by S. In February 2001 he injured his finger while repeatedly attempting to rescue a critically injured victim of a road accident from the wreckage of a vehicle. P had been called in because a firefighter from another station was suffering from exhaustion. P used a 1040 Homatro Ram for the rescue. This was a powered T-shaped spreading device. As P was trying to position the device in the cab of the vehicle, he trapped his finger between the housing of the ram’s arm and the extension as it retracted into the housing. P had not previously used this equipment because his own station used a lighter ram.

P claimed compensation from S on the basis of a breach of regulation 4 of PUWER and in common law negligence. At first instance, his claim succeeded. The judge found that the ram had been unsuitable for the purpose for which it was provided. S appealed to the Court of Appeal. That court dismissed the appeal and made the following points.

  • When operated by properly trained and instructed personnel, the ram was suitable.
  • It had not been P’s decision to use the ram. He had not had the opportunity to assess which equipment should be used.
  • The equipment was substantially heavier than that which he had been trained for. Therefore, he had not been supplied with a safe system of work. This was a breach of regulation 11 of PUWER because, although fixed and other guards had not been provided or were impracticable, instruction and training should have been given on the heavier ram.

PUWER — definition of “dangerous parts”

Regulation 11 of PUWER deals with dangerous parts of machinery. It states, in summary, that employers must take measures to prevent access to dangerous parts of machinery or to stop the movement of any dangerous machinery before any part of a person enters a danger zone. The danger zone is the area on or around machinery in which there is a risk of contact between a person and a dangerous machinery part.

A “dangerous part” of machinery has been defined by the courts as one which might be a reasonably foreseeable cause of injury to anyone acting in a way in which a human being might be reasonably expected to act in circumstances which might be reasonably expected to occur.

A machine is dangerous if, in the ordinary course of human affairs, danger might reasonably be anticipated from its use, not only to the prudent, alert and skilled operative intent upon his or her task, but also to the careless and inattentive operative whose inadvertent or indolent conduct might expose him or her to the risk of injury or death.

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