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Porter v Devon County Council, Bodmin County Court, 13 December 2006

5 March 2007
The issues

Workplaces – office layout – tripping hazards – traffic routes

The facts

Mrs Porter was employed as an Assistant Manager at the Fairlea Residential Home in Bideford by Devon County Council. She had been so employed since September 2001. Her job required her to work anywhere in the home as required. In the course of the day, Mrs Porter estimated that she would have to get up from her desk in the main office some 50 to 70 times to attend to matters. The other desk in the office was occupied by her manager, Mrs Lock.

On 20 November 2002 Mrs Porter caught her right foot on the nearside rear leg of her own desk as she was about to walk between it and Mrs Lock’s desk. The Claimant complained that the desk created a danger, as the surface had an insufficient overhang in order to keep pedestrians away from the leg of the desk. Following the accident the desk used by Mrs Porter had been replaced by one with a fairly substantial overhang in order to accommodate a new computer.
The Claimant contended that there was a “narrow gap” between the nearside left desk leg and the filing cabinets behind the desk. The layout of the room therefore created a foreseeable risk in the context of the allegedly cramped room, given the number of times the Claimant had to pass to and fro.

The Defendant adduced evidence to show there had been a complete lack of any earlier accidents or complaints involving the desk over at least a 20 year period. Measurements taken on the day of the hearing showed that there was at least 43.5″ of floor space between the two original desks in the office and 40.5″ between the nearside rear corner of Mrs Porter’s desk and the filing cabinet on the rear wall.

The decision

Dismissing the Claimant’s case, the Judge firstly held that there was no breach of Regulation 12(3) of the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 due to the presence a tripping hazard on a traffic route. The Judge accepted the submission that the nearside rear leg of the desk was outside the traffic route within the office. Even if he was wrong about that, the Judge held that the extent of the risk of tripping, as seen without the benefit of hindsight, was so slight that it was outside the ambit of regulation 12(3). Finally, he also found that it would have been a reasonably impracticable to take any other steps to reduce the risk, since the desk was entirely suitable and quite standard.

The Judge secondly rejected the Claimant’s case under Regulation 17 of the Workplace Regulations, alleging a failure to organise the workplace in such a way that pedestrians could circulate in a safe manner. The Judge noted that the desk had been in use without incident for many years. He had little hesitation in finding that there was adequate space around it.

Finally, the Claimant relied on Regulation 10 of the Workplace Regulations; alleging that there was insufficient unoccupied space within the office. The Judge found that there was no evidence that the unoccupied space in the office posed a risk to health safety and welfare or that it had caused the accident.

The Judge indicated that even if he had upheld the claim, he would have made a reduction of 50% by way of contributory negligence.

Claim dismissed.

For further information please contact Hamish McConachie hcm@veitchpenny.co.uk) or Brent McDonald (bmd@2templegardens.co.uk)

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