What are the risks of overlooking non-employees' health and safety?

In light of a couple of recent cases, Nick Wilson examines the consequences of employers who fail to safeguard contractors and volunteers

The first of the two cases involved volunteers from an anglers’ association who were clearing a riverbank using chainsaws. A member of the party was fatally hit by a thick falling branch. This tragedy resulted in the anglers’ association being fined for breaches of health and safety law.

No risk assessment had been undertaken and the recommended five metre exclusion zone had not been set up around the felling site.

An investigation found that the volunteers had not received formal health and safety instructions; had not been properly trained for the work; and used inadequate equipment.

The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) impose a legal duty of care on organisations towards those not at work, such as volunteers and members of the public.

The local anglers’ association admitted breaches of legislation because they’d failed to ensure the safety of those not in its employment. The fine was a hefty £66,000 with additional costs of £17,500. And above all that, a family was left grieving.

When it comes to non-employed workforces, corners should never be cut, and the goodwill of volunteers should not be relied upon. 

In this case, following the tragedy and the subsequent ruling, the anglers’ association stated: “The case has been a salutary lesson and shows that there can be no compromise when it comes to matters of health and safety.”

Risk assessments and method statements

In the second case, a contractor visiting a steel stockholding firm fell from height and was injured. In this case, both the site owners and the contractor’s employer were found at fault and fined £50,000 each, plus costs.

The contractor had visited the site to repair a fault with an overhead travelling crane, but when he arrived, there was no equipment on site for working at the required height. Instead, he was lifted in a wooden crate balanced on the forks of a forklift to carry out the repair. The crate tipped over as it was being lowered back down and he fell several metres onto a concrete floor.

The contractor was an experienced engineer, confident working at height and may possibly have felt ‘immune’ to the dangers. In this case, not only was there no risk assessment or method statement provided, but nobody was sure who was actually responsible for preparing them.

The investigator, on behalf of the local council, concluded that the site owners and the contractor’s employers should have co-operated. He decided that the contractor would not have been sent to site had it been known that the lifting equipment he needed was not available. Consequently, he found both companies equally at fault.

Lessons for the future 

Both these tragic cases make it clear that companies engaging individuals who are not employees still have a duty to ensure their work is undertaken safely. The severity of the fines and costs serve as a warning that the health and safety of non-employees should not be overlooked.

Here are some action points to ensure that policies and procedures are up to date:

  • While the pandemic is still limiting numbers of contractors and volunteers, take the opportunity to review your safety procedures. Make any updates available to all stakeholders.

  • Make risk assessments mandatory before embarking on any project involving volunteers and ensure that proper training is available – particularly for any jobs involving machinery.

  • Ask to see specialist contractors’ own risk assessments and method statements and monitor what they are doing on site.

  • Seek advice if fulfilling your health and safety obligations seems daunting or overwhelming. You can approach health and safety consultants to audit your procedures and help you manage your risks.

Nick Wilson is director of health and safety services at WorkNest, a former HSE inspector and a chartered safety practitioner