The health and safety obligations placed upon employers are onerous and failing to meet them in full can have grave consequences. The point was proved by a case in which a haulage company was found liable to pay very substantial damages to a lorry driver who suffered severe electrical burns in a roadside accident.
The driver had parked in a layby and raised his trailer with the intention of cleaning it. It either touched or came into close proximity with high-voltage overhead power lines. The resulting electric shock was so severe that it caused a fracture to his spine. His right leg had to be amputated and he was left severely physically and psychologically scarred.
In finding the company that employed him 75 per cent responsible for the accident, the High Court noted that there had been no specific risk assessment of the dangers involved in cleaning out lorries on the highway. Although the hazard of actual contact with power lines was obvious, the driver had not been warned that he would also be at risk if his trailer came into close proximity with them.
The company's employees should have been told to observe an exclusion zone of at least three metres around power cables and, had the driver been told not to raise his vehicle's trailer for cleaning purposes, he would have obeyed. Had that happened, there would have been no accident. The company's failure to operate a safe system of work was thus a material cause of the accident.
The Court found that the driver was 25 per cent responsible for his own misfortune. The power lines were highly visible and, had he dismounted from his cab to check for obstructions, disaster could have been averted. It is, however, inevitable that drivers from time to time suffer momentary lapses in concentration or focus. The amount of the driver's compensation has yet to be assessed. However, the value of his claim is likely to be in the region of £4 million on a full liability basis.