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Employers' Common Law Responsibilities

By: J.A.J Aaronson - Updated: 8 Sep 2012 | comments*Discuss
Employers Common Law Responsibilities

The British system of law consists of two parts: common law and statutes. The distinctions between these two types of law are outlined in another article on this site as are the responsibilities conferred on employers by statute. This article deals with the requirements of employers under common law.

As is discussed in the article mentioned above, common law is law formed of previous decisions by courts that have set precedent. This is then used as guidance for future cases. As such, common law is therefore defined not by entries in the statute books but by records of previous cases. One of the most important cases for health and safety common law is Wilsons and Clyde Coal Co. v. English (1938). This case established that every employer must ensure that their workforce has safe access to a safe workplace; safe work systems; safe appliances; and safe fellow workers, implying that they must be competent at their job.

Safe Workplaces

The duties asserted in this case can be broken down into those four constituent parts. The first, the responsibility to provide a safe workplace, dates back to Brydon v. Stewart (1855). This case concerned a mine worker who was killed in an open lift carrying him out of a shaft. He was hit by falling debris, and the courts supported his claim that his employer was negligent as they had failed to cover the lift, and falling debris was a ‘foreseeable risk’. This is an important concept; common law asserts that it is the employer’s responsibility to prevent only foreseeable risks from occurring during the course of work. The employer is not responsible for the results of freak occurrences as long as they have taken all other necessary steps require of them by law. This was affirmed in Latimer v. AEC Ltd (1953), in which slippery surfaces caused by unexpected flooding led to an employee slipping and injuring himself. As the employer had taken all reasonable precautions and the flooding was not foreseeable, they were not liable.

Safe Work Systems

The responsibility to provide safe work systems is an extensive one. This encompasses general such elements as factors determining working conditions such as ventilation, as well as competent and sufficient training and supervision. This section illustrates another important point: duties under common law are in addition to those assumed by statute. This was demonstrated in Bux v. Slough Metals Ltd (1974), in which an employee who had complained that the goggles with which he was provided steamed up and were therefore unsuitable was later blinded by molten metal. He had stopped wearing the goggles after complaining, and was not forced to put them back on. The judge ruled that, even though the employer had provided safety equipment, they had breached the duty of ‘effective supervision’ that was conferred by common law. Thus, the employer was liable for the man’s blinding.

It is important to understand, therefore, that common law is law set by precedent, and that the duties conferred by it are in addition to those conferred by statute. It may also be useful to read the articles concerning those responsibilities taken on by employers through statute law.

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