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A reminder to employers; failure to guard against foreseeable harm at the workplace may attract liability

23 February 2023 Deniro Pillay and Purnel Gangiah, Norton Rose Fulbright

In circumstances where an employer fails to take reasonable steps to guard against the inherent dangers to employees in operating machinery on its premises, such entity may find itself liable for the damages sustained by the operator of the machinery. Operators of machinery must be reasonably trained by employers to ensure that they have the necessary skills to operate the specific machinery and to avoid any harm from occurring.

The claimant, a contractor provided by a labour broker, sued the defendant employer for damages resulting from the injuries that he sustained whilst operating machinery at the defendant’s manufacturing plant. The defendant accepted that it had a legal duty to ensure that no persons are to be instructed or permitted to operate machinery and equipment at the plant without first receiving the necessary training and proper instructions on how to use the machinery.

The claimant alleged that the employer breached their legal duty in that they instructed him to use the machinery without ensuring that he was properly trained, they failed to supervise the use of the machinery, and they failed to ensure that he operated the machinery in a safe and controlled environment.

The defendant alleged that all operators engaged to render services, including the claimant, were properly trained and that there was adequate supervision over the use of the machinery.

It was undisputed that an operator is provided with induction training which covers topics such as work safety, fire prevention, health protection and environmental protection. Normally, there is a pre-recorded, 32 minute slide show presentation which contains information and instructions of a general nature. There is also a tour of the defendant’s plant. The induction training did not prepare operators to operate the machinery on the various production lines, nor did it cover the associated risks with operating the specific machinery.

At the time of the claimant’s induction, the abovementioned pre-recoded, 32 minute slide show presentation was not available, however, a presentation was done using the same, alternatively, materially the same slides as those contained in the 32 minute slide show presentation. 

The issues before the court were:

  • Whether the defendant took reasonable steps to guard against the dangers inherent in operating the machinery to which the claimant had been directed to operate.
  • Whether sufficient training was provided in relation to the operation of the machinery.

The court decided that the defendant failed to take reasonable steps as the instructions given to the claimant were inadequate to prepare the claimant to operate the specific machinery. The court further decided that:

  • The claimant was afforded insufficient supervision in operating the machinery.
  • The defendant failed to ensure that the claimant operated the machinery in a safe and controlled manner.
  • The defendant failed to take reasonable steps to preserve and protect the bodily integrity and physical well-being of the claimant.

The court found that if the claimant had been properly trained and supervised, he would have been aware of the inherent risks in operating the machinery. The harm suffered by the claimant was therefore foreseeable and sufficiently closely linked to the abovementioned failures by the defendant. The defendant was therefore found liable for the damages sustained by the claimant.

Machinery can carry inherent risks of harm to which operators of the machinery are exposed to through inexperience or lack of training. The above case illustrates the importance for employers providing reasonable training to machine operators who operate the machinery on their premises. Lonwabo Hobongwana v Benteler South Africa (Pty) Ltd 2011 JDR 1831 (ECP).

First published by: Financial Institutions Legal Snapshot

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