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April 15, 2011

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Magistrate slams pub operator’s "negligent" approach to safety

Pub chain JD Wetherspoon has admitted a number of safety failings after an employee suffered liquid burns at one of its establishments in Exeter.

Student Joe Sellman-Leava, 20, was working as a kitchen assistant at the newly opened Chevalier Inn, in Fore Street, Exeter when the incident took place on 27 July 2009.

Mr Sellman-Leava was only a few days into the job when he suffered injuries to his arm, stomach and leg, as well as permanent skin damage. He had been asked to load heavy grill plates into a decarbonising unit – a bath containing detergent heated to 80oC – to remove burnt dirt and grease from the plates. But he hadn’t been instructed how to use the machine, as he had missed his induction training due to illness.

He lowered one of the plates into the bath but he panicked when hot steam started to emit from the machine. He then dropped the plate into the heated detergent, causing it to splash over him. The steam caused the building’s fire alarm to activate, and as he tried to get away from the machine he slipped on detergent that had splashed on to the floor.

Environmental health officers from Exeter City Council investigated the incident and found Mr Sellman-Leava had not been provided any protective clothing, except for a pair of gloves.

The investigation also found that although a risk assessment existed for using the decarbonising unit but it was not considered to be suitable and sufficient, as it didn’t take into account that the equipment was located in a corridor, some distance from the kitchen itself. The maximum number of items which could be safely decarbonised at one time had also not been considered, and no mention was made of the hazards associated with handling heavy (and, on this occasion, hot) items into the unit.

The Council’s head of environmental health services, Robert Norley, said: “This was a particularly nasty burn injury to a young man in his first week of work that could have had far more serious consequences. This case illustrates the need for employers to ensure that proper health and safety training is provided for all staff.”

JD Wetherspoon appeared at Exeter Magistrates’ Court on 6 April and pleaded guilty to breaching s2(1) of the HSWA 1974, reg. 3 and reg. 13 of of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, for failing to carry out a sufficient risk assesment and for not providing adequate training. It was fined a total of £27,000 and ordered to pay £6232 in costs.

In sentencing, the chair of the bench listed a number of aggravating factors, including poor access to the decarbonizer, a lack of suitable and sufficient risk assessments, inadequate personal protective equipment, a lack of knowledge about the chemicals used, and failure to suitably train employees – all actions which she descirbed as “negligent”.

In mitigation, the firm said the breaches were not deliberate, nor was any financial gain sought by the company. It also said it had cooperated with the investigation and has made improvements to help prevent a recurrence of the accident.

Representing JD Wetherspoon, barrister Saba Naqshbandi, said: “This isn’t a company where there are no systems in place, or which does not recognise or understand the need for individuals to be trained properly. But, unfortunately, it appears that requirement was not followed at the local level.”

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