As I sat in yet another traffic jam on the North Circular Road in London recently, I noticed a building site where a construction company was in the process of building a new development. It reminded me that I had recently advised a client who was employed by the same construction firm as a traffic manager.
His job was to look after vehicles visiting the site and ensure that every vehicle dropped their load off safely. I was advising him because he had injured his back whilst attempting to adjust the forks on a forklift truck so that the driver could pick up a large bag of sand.
As he tried to manoeuvre one of the forks into place he collapsed to the ground with excruciating back pain. Fortunately, after having to spend a number of months in hospital recuperating, he has now been able to return to work.
I asked my client why he was doing what he was doing when the accident occurred. He told me his employer had said there was an opportunity for a new, more lucrative role on offer and if he helped the forklift driver adjust his forks, he would then have the necessary experience when the new role became available.
The sort of lifting and pushing that such a task demands is known as a ‘Manual Handling Operation’. Anyone expected to engage in manual handling must be trained so that the risks of injury are minimised. My client told me he had received no such training. He then added what I hear so often from clients: “You just have to get on with it, don’t you?”
When the employer’s insurance company received details of the work accident claim, they denied blame on the basis that the employment agency that found the client the role was responsible for his training. The agency’s response was that they were simply an agent and their role was to find people work and not to train them.
We returned to the employer. They continued to deny liability. This time, they said my client had exceeded the scope of his role and had done something he wasn’t trained to do. They said he was to blame.
When a denial of liability is made, an employer is expected to disclose copies of all relevant documents they then rely upon. In this case, they disclosed a document which in my experience, is a telltale sign a client has not been trained properly - a piece of paper listing a number of work activities that are all ticked and signed off by the client on the day he started work with them. It suggested that after a day’s training my client was an expert at everything from handling dangerous chemicals to administering first aid.
I suggested to him that it must have been a busy day of training! On the contrary, his foreman had simply ticked all the boxes and then asked him to sign it.
When I asked him why he signed it I knew what his answer would be. It is always the same: “You don’t say anything because there is always someone else who would like the job”. Some of my clients have been happy to sign these documents even though they struggle to read English - they simply do what they are told for fear of losing work.
The insurers insisted that my client had been properly trained and that the work accident was his fault. When I asked them to send me information about the content of the training courses, nothing was forthcoming.
I arranged for my client to see a spinal injury surgeon and I calculated his financial losses. When I disclosed this evidence to the insurers they made an offer of settlement. Although it was reasonable, I thought we could do better. After a week, my client had an increased offer which he was more than happy with.
Like so many work accident claims, my client’s employer could have avoided liability had they simply provided my client with proper manual handling training. Even lawyers have manual handling training nowadays so I have no sympathy whatsoever for a construction company which fails to train its staff.
Shortcuts in employee training cannot be tolerated. It is always disappointing that some employers continue to treat staff training as a literal tick-box exercise. The workplace can be dangerous and although we obviously can’t avoid every accident, some simple training undoubtedly helps to reduce accident numbers.
John Reeder is a Senior Personal Injury Lawyer, specialising in work accident compensation claims at Slater and Gordon Lawyers in London.
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