Case law: Employers should review what amounts to 'work equipment' for purposes of duty to maintain such equipment
Employers should review what amounts to 'work equipment' in the workplace, to ensure compliance with their legal duties to maintain such equipment, following a case where serious injury to a canteen assistant was caused by a broken mug handle.
This update was published in Legal Alert - December 2015
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A canteen assistant in a Northern Irish school seriously injured her wrist when the handle of a mug came off while drying it in the canteen. She required surgery and a year off work.
No-one knew who had brought the mug in, or how long it had been in the kitchen. The school had procedures for inspecting crockery for cracks when washing it, and employees used gloves when washing up. However, in this case the handle broke off after it had been washed, and the employee had taken her gloves off.
The Provision and Use of Work Equipment (Northern Ireland) Regulations place duties on employers who own, operate or provide 'work equipment' to maintain it in efficient working order and in good repair. Equipment means 'any machinery, appliance, apparatus, tool or installation for use at work (whether exclusively or not)'. 'Use' includes cleaning of equipment. The wording of the corresponding regulations in England & Wales (known as 'PUWER') is almost identical in this respect.
The court ruled that the mug was 'equipment' within the meaning of the regulations because it 'performed a useful, practical function in relation to the purposes of that undertaking'. The duty under PUWER therefore applied and the employer was in breach of the regulations. Even though the employer had not originally supplied the mug, over time it had become part of stock generally used in the canteen. The court awarded the employee £25000 plus care and assistance costs of nearly £2000 for the care provided by her husband.
However, it is not certain that PUWER would have applied had the injury been to a teacher or pupil. Washing mugs, for instance, is not a specific part of a teacher's job description as it is for a canteen assistant.
- Employers should review how they define 'work equipment' for the purposes of meeting their PUWER duties, taking into account the job descriptions of employees cleaning or otherwise 'using' that equipment
Case ref: Rooney v Western Education and Library Board NIQBD 87
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