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Health and Safety: Severance Pay?

Nobody is ever going to give health and safety an award for the sexiest workplace subject. In fact, despite all the sensible and obvious arguments in its favour, many companies still tend to underestimate the importance of safety at work. Risk assessments are often pushed to the bottom of the to-do list and contingency arrangements are frequently not made to allow organisations deal with events efficiently if there’s an accident. Depending on the severity of the incident, you can find yourself in deep water.

That’s exactly what happened to Cumbrian firm Smurfit Kappa, who were recently fined £200,000 after an employee suffered an accident in the course of which a power press machine severed fingers on both of his hands. An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that Stephen Stamper had not had any training to use the machine he was working on, and there were no risk assessments in place for the work.

Mr Stamper had been using a machine that exerts a force of up to 35 tonnes to stamp out metal lids for cardboard whisky tubes. He had reached under it to remove a lid when the machine stamped down on his hand, severing the little and ring fingers in his left hand, and the ring and middle fingers on his right hand. The little and index fingers on his right hand were also severed to the knuckle. His injuries were so extensive that he will be disabled for the rest of his life (and he was only 25 at the time it happened). In the three years before the accident, Smurfit Kappa had been served with notices in relation to isolation procedures. If they had only acted on the notices, the accident could have been prevented.

The HSE’s investigation found that Smurfit had not trained Mr Stamper how to operate the machine safely, and did not have a suitable risk assessment for the work. The supervisor who had managed the department in which Mr Stamper worked had left the company four months earlier and the workers who took over his supervision had not received suitable training either.

Employers have a duty to provide their employees with a safe area of work and safe working practices. HSE figures suggest that between 2011 and 2012 1.1 million people suffered from a work-related illness or injury and 173 employees were killed at work. It’s not just workplace accidents you need to think about either; ill health can also affect the workplace suddenly and you need to be able to respond appropriately. You might remember Dragons’ Den star Duncan Bannatyne’s health scare last year. He was experiencing severe chest pains when he was found by his secretary. She used her first-aid skills whilst they were waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Now he’s spearheading a campaign for first-aid training at work and has since ensured that one in eight employees at his business headquarters is trained in first-aid.

Prevention is better than cure. Don’t wait until you get to the stage where you have an accident before you take safety matters seriously.

  • Make sure risk assessments are up-to-date and include all relevant equipment and working practices.
  • Ensure that supervisors work with those employees operating machinery and equipment regularly, to ensure that the machine is checked and running correctly.
  • Supply first-aid kits and ensure that sufficient employees have undergone first aider training.
  • Supply and ensure that employees wear/use protective equipment.
  • Be clear that behaviour, such as horseplay, is inappropriate and firmly discourage it. Pranks are inappropriate for most work environments and can be dangerous. Deal with it through the formal disciplinary route if appropriate.

Safety should be a priority for every employer and employee.

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