Following an incident at a public house in East Suffolk where a member of staff suffered life-changing injuries, the company responsible for operating the business has been ordered to pay almost £60,000.
A sentencing hearing was held on Thursday 19 August at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court, for Mariners Inns Ltd, the company operating the Mariners Freehouse in Trimley St. Martin near Felixstowe, where the incident occurred in 2019. The company pleaded guilty to breaching sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
District Judge King imposed on the company a fine, surcharge and costs totalling £59,904.91.
District Judge King said: “I accept that the company did not set out deliberately to cause harm, but that is not enough. There is the potential for risks in any business and that business has an obligation and duty to reduce the risks as much as reasonably possible; the defendant did not. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but hindsight here does not win the battle; I consider that this was an accident waiting to happen, given the inadequate measures taken. To me as a lay person, the risks of a large hole taking up the majority of a walking space can be foreseen; this accident could have happened to anyone there.”
The Judge also explained that he was taking into account the effects of COVID-19 on the hospitality trade, and the penalties would have been higher had that factor not arisen.
On Sunday 19 May 2019, a new member of staff was on a trial shift. A hatch behind the bar, leading down to the cellar, had been left open and unguarded, relying on bar staff remembering to work around it. The new worker, distracted when her attention was sought, walked across the open hatch, and fell more than 2 metres down onto the hard floor of the cellar, hitting the cellar stairs as she fell. She sustained significant injuries including a collapsed lung, multiple rib fractures, as well as back and head injuries and spent 36 days in hospital.
The incident was reported to East Suffolk Council as the local health and safety enforcing authority, who conducted a thorough investigation. Urgent enforcement action was taken to address the ongoing risk of serious personal injury, and to introduce safety measures in compliance with the law.
Cllr Mary Rudd, East Suffolk’s cabinet member for Community Health said: “This incident could so easily have been avoided if the proper safety measures were in place and being used. Not only has the incident affected the injured person’s ongoing health, it has also impacted her ability to find further employment. There is extensive health and safety guidance available to businesses to ensure they can keep their staff and customers safe, and we would urge all business owners to regularly review their own risk assessments and ensure they have controls in place to prevent someone else suffering in the same way.”
Rope cordons were present behind the bar which, if used, would have given some indication that the hatch was open and that there was a danger. However, these cordons were not used, and had not been used by staff for some time.
Video footage shows the hatch had been left open and wholly unguarded during trading hours 29 times in the four days leading up to the day of the incident. The rope cordons were used in the immediate aftermath of the fall but, once the injured person had been extricated from the cellar, ordinary trading was resumed, and the cellar was then accessed a further six times by various members of staff during trading hours and with the hatch wholly unguarded.
It had apparently become commonplace to shout a verbal warning to other staff members whenever the hatch was open: the inadequacy of that method of control of risk is shown by the injuries sustained. The danger was compounded by a practice of leaving the gate and flap open, effectively allowing customers as well as staff to wander behind the bar to the hatch area. Simple measures to reduce the frequency and duration of hatch openings during trading, and to guard against approaching or falling through the open hatch, could have been taken, but were not.
As a result of the investigation, the directors of Mariners Inns Ltd installed a new hatch and cordons and a protective grille (to prevent falls through the gap when the hatch was open), relocated items within the building to reduce the need to use the hatch, installed a handrail and non-slip treads to the cellar steps and installed better lighting.