Sainsbury’s £1 million Fine for H&S Breach

In April, Sainsbury’s was fined £1 million after a customer was injured by one of its pandemic queuing systems. The customer suffered serious facial injuries after she drove her mobility scooter into a length of baler twine outside the supermarket’s Newbury branch. The investigation found that Sainsbury’s had failed to perform any sort of risk assessment before installing the queueing system. In particular, it had not considered how the measures could affect disabled or visually impaired customers.

The system put thousands of customers at the Sainsbury’s superstore in Newbury at risk.  The store had created a queuing system in the car park during the coronavirus lockdown using high visibility, red and white plastic tape to mark lanes. However, when these were vandalised, the store manager opted to use thin but strong baler twine drawn taut between two pillars in one area. On 21 June 2020 the customer arrived at the store on her mobility scooter and ran into the twine at speed, face first. The twine caused horrific injuries, splitting the customer’s mouth open and fracturing her teeth, jaw and palate. She was taken to the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford for emergency surgery. Surgeons had to implant titanium plates and screws to rebuild her jaw and palate, and she now needs ongoing medical treatment. 

No Risk Assessment  

The prosecution suggested the twine amounted to an inadvertent ‘booby trap’, which could have strangled or even decapitated someone during the seven weeks it was used. No risk assessment had been conducted on the use of the twine to replace the plastic tape. Sainsbury Supermarkets Ltd, admitted exposing customers to danger and failing to make a suitable risk assessment contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. 

Kate Blackwell QC, a Sainsburys spokesperson pointed out that the company had a previously spotless health and safety record with zero previous convictions. She added that store management had co-operated with the investigation throughout – immediate steps were taken to remove the twine and that the company had so far paid more than £31,000 towards the victim’s medical and care bills although a civil case was also pending. Ms Blackwell added that the store manager had decided to use the twine “for the best of reasons” and challenged a suggestion that the customer could have been decapitated. 

District Judge Samuel Goozee responded: “Care should be taken not to sensationalise the risk”. He acknowledged that the company “had to rapidly respond to Government guidance to protect the public during a pandemic while continuing to provide an essential service to the public,” but added: “A sufficient risk assessment would have identified the risks from the baler twine extended between metal posts. “Ironically the manager’s decision to use the twine was a response to other health and safety issues that would have arisen from vandalism and weather damage. Nevertheless, it was a decision that was inadequate”. The judge fined the supermarket £1 million and ordered the company to pay £18,263.62 costs, plus a statutory victim services surcharge of £190. 

Summary

The pandemic was a stressful time for retailers, and many were forced to implement new safety measures at short notice. But this doesn’t absolve them from broader responsibility even if their situation attracts some sympathy.

The case highlights the importance of considering all foreseeable consequences/risks when planning new or changing activities. Even if you are creating measures in response to a specific danger, you mustn’t let this blind you to others.

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