Employers should provide employees working in damp conditions for prolonged periods with protective clothing, the High Court has ruled.

They will now have to reconsider their policies and procedures relating to the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and what level of risk of injury will necessitate its use.

In a landmark case backed by Unite the union, the High Court in London said that the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 should cover employees who are required to work in damp conditions for long periods, even if there was no expert or other evidence to confirm a risk of injury.

The court upheld a decision by Norwich County Court to award compensation to Unite member John Spalding.

Slipped on Plastic Bin Bag

Mr Spalding, a plumber employed by the University of East Anglia, had been repairing a leaking radiator in the University’s library. He had to lie under a desk to get to it.

He was not supplied with an anti-slip mat or waterproof protective clothing by his employer and so obtained a couple of plastic bin bags to lie on in order to avoid lying on the sodden area surrounding the radiator. After completing the repair, as he got to his feet, he slipped on the bin bags and fell, striking his face on the nearby desk. He suffered serious facial injuries and lost three teeth.

Unite’s lawyers Thompsons argued that the PPE regulations required that Mr Spalding should have been provided with waterproof clothing and a mat in order to work in damp and wet conditions which could have exposed him to injury or illness.

The County Court agreed and awarded damages. But the University appealed on the grounds that there was no risk of injury without specific evidence and that the provision of waterproof clothing was just a question of comfort and convenience. The University maintained that they were, in effect, found liable for failing to prevent a plumber getting wet.

Accordingly, the appeal hearing focused on the interpretation of the PPE regulations and the nature of the risk of personal injury required to engage the Regulations.

Mat had been requested many times

Mr Justice Spencer dismissed the University’s appeal.

Mr Spalding commented: “My colleagues and I asked many times for a mat to be provided and were told that we would get one, but it never happened. I am angry that even though it looked as though I had been in the ring with Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston, had to have stitches and lost teeth, that the University fought my claim for compensation for five years.”

Gail Cartmail, Unite Assistant General Secretary said: “We welcome the High Court’s decision in our member’s case. The PPE regulations are intended to provide protection to workers’ health and safety. Too many employers fail to carry out proper risk assessments and to provide employees with the necessary equipment to prevent them being injured.”

Sukhdev Gill, of Thompsons Solicitors in Derby and who represented Mr Spalding said: “The High Court has provided important clarification in the application of the PPE regulations, bearing in mind that PPE should always be a last resort if the risk to health and safety cannot be removed.”