General Cleaning Contractors Ld -v- Christmas; HL 1953

It is the duty of the employer to consider the situation, devise a suitable system and instruct his employees what they must do and to provide appropriate equipment. In leaving it to individual workmen to take precautions against an obvious danger, the employers had failed to discharge their duty to provide a reasonably safe system of work.
Lord Oaksey said: ‘In my opinion, it is the duty of an employer to give such general safety instructions as a reasonably careful employer who has considered the problem presented by the work would give to his workmen. It is, I think, well known to employers, and there is evidence in this case that it was well known to the appellants, that their workpeople are very frequently, if not habitually, careless about the risks which their work may involve. It is, in my opinion, for that very reason that the common law demands that employers should take reasonable care to lay down a reasonably safe system of work. Employers are not exempted from this duty by the fact that their men are experienced and might, if they were in the position of an employer, be able to lay down a reasonably safe system of work themselves. Workmen are not in the position of employers. Their duties are not performed in the calm atmosphere of a board room with the advice of experts. They have to make their decisions on narrow window sills and other places of danger and in circumstances in which the dangers are obscured by repetition.
The risk that sashes may unexpectedly close, as the sashes in this case appear to have done, may not happen very often, but when it does, if the workman is steadying himself by a handhold, his fall is almost certain. If the possibility is faced the risk is obvious. If both sashes are closed there is no longer the handhold by which the workman steadies himself. If either sash is kept open the handhold is available and, on the evidence in this case, is, in my opinion, reasonably safe. But the problem is one for the employer to solve and should not, in my opinion, be left to the workman. It can be solved by general orders and the provision of appropriate appliances.’
Lord Reid said: ‘The question then is whether it is the duty of the appellants to instruct their servants what precautions they ought to take and to take reasonable steps to see that those instructions are carried out. On that matter the appellants say that their men are skilled men who are well aware of the dangers involved and as well able as the appellants to devise and take any necessary precautions. That may be so but, in my opinion, it is not a sufficient answer. Where the problem varies from job to job it may be reasonable to leave a great deal to the man in charge, but the danger in this case is one which is constantly found, and it calls for a system to meet it. Where a practice of ignoring an obvious danger has grown up I do not think that it is reasonable to expect an individual workman to take the initiative in devising and using precautions. It is the duty of the employer to consider the situation, to devise a suitable system, to instruct his men what they must do and to supply any implements that may be required.’

Court: HL
Date: 01-Jan-1953
Judges: Lord Oaksey, Lord Read
References: [1952] 1 KB 141, [1953] AC 180
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