A recent High Court case highlights that an employer’s statutory duty to ensure the safety of their employees from slipping at work extends to taking ‘reasonably practicable’ steps as opposed to all possible steps.

The appeal in Burrows v Northumbrian Water Limited was brought by Mr Burrows, a trunk mains operator employed by Northumbrian Water.

In February 2010, Mr Burrows made an emergency visit to a remote unmanned reservoir. There was snow on the reservoir access road. Whilst laying salt obtained from a salt box by the entrance to the access road behind the wheels of his 4 x 4, Mr Burrows slipped on a patch of black ice, breaking his ankle.

A key fact in this case was that the access road (which was accepted to be a traffic route under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992) was used only weekly or in emergencies (so a completely different situation to, say, a walkway in a factory or a car park of industrial premises).

Regulation 12 of the Workplace Regulations says:

“So far as is reasonably practicable…the surface of every traffic route in a workplace shall be kept free from obstructions and from any article or substance which may cause a person to slip, trip or fall.”

Mr Burrows’ lawyers argued that Northumbrian Water should have taken more steps to ensure the access road was clear, including gritting the road and checking the status of the road more frequently. However, the court agreed with county court judge’s conclusion that these steps would have involved no safety gain. In fact, the likelihood was that there would have been an increase and not a decrease in the risk to employees, as to keep the road clear, someone would have had to access it (more or less daily if not more frequently) and in turn been exposed to the same risk as Mr Burrows.

The High Court found that Northumbrian Water had done all that was reasonably practicable. It also dismissed the argument that the workplace had not been maintained under the Workplace Regulations as the mere presence of snow and ice was not sufficient to show the workplace had not been maintained. Maintenance involved cleaning but only ‘as appropriate’. The court acknowledged that this might have been different if the access road had been busier.

This case does not say that employers don’t have to clear ice or snow on workplace access roads; the court made it clear that a key factor in this case was the low footfall on the access road and employers will need to consider the particular circumstances faced by their employees whilst at work. However, the message is that there has to be an element of common sense and measures which in fact have no safety gain are unlikely to be ‘reasonably practicable’ steps.