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Commercial Flooring News

Hazards: Sign Of The Times

Do safety signs protect companies from legal action?

UNTIL now you have relied on safety signs to warn employees and visitors to keep away from any unprotected areas of danger on your premises. But is this approach safe and, if not, what should you be doing?
Watch your step: Your premises are low risk, but whenever you have had a problem, you’ve tended to use safety signs as both a warning and a solution until it was fixed. This could be to alert staff to an uneven or slippery walkway or to warn them to stay away from a particular area. After all, your staff and visitors can read so there shouldn’t be a problem, should there? However, a recent court case shows that this approach could still leave you at risk of a claim. So what should you consider?
The legal position: If you thought that using signs to warn of hazards is enough, then you are not alone. Many employers don’t fully understand the role that safety signs play. The Health and Safety (Safety Signs and Signals) Regulations 1996 require you to put up a safety sign where there are risks to health & safety that haven’t been avoided or adequately reduced by other means. But if repairs or modifications aren’t viable in the medium term, you must take other steps to reduce the risk of injury.

Can’t you read?: The issue of how far safety signs can let you off the hook was looked at in Tomlinson v Congleton Borough Council. Although it was brought under the Occupier’s Liability Act 1984, it shows how a court deals with an occupier who relies on signs to warn others (including trespassers) of the risks.
Tomlinson ignored safety signs that prohibited swimming in a lake and broke his neck as a result. Whilst he accepted that he was a trespasser, he sued the council alleging that it was in breach of its basic duty of care. He claimed that instead of relying on signs to warn of what were serious risks, it should have provided barriers to physically prevent access.
This case reached the Court of Appeal where Tomlinson was successful. The court felt that the lake presented risks of drowning and injury that the council should have been aware of and which couldn’t be adequately controlled by signs alone. Also, in this case the council knew that the signs were being ignored yet still failed to act. This is also a potential liability issue for you if you know or suspect your signs are being ignored.
Signs aren’t enough: This case makes it clear that signs are a measure of last resort and are to be used to warn of a residual danger. It’s not enough to rely on them to absolve you of your legal responsibilities. Although what is expected of you will vary in each individual case, the greater the danger, the more you should be doing to deal with it.
Also bear in mind that this case concerned a trespasser who’s only owed a basic duty of care. In our example, staff and other lawful visitors could break a leg or an ankle on a slippery or uneven surface, so you’ll arguably owe them a greater duty of care.
Use barriers: Reducing the risks of a hazard until it can be rectified need not be difficult or costly for you.
Tip. Use barriers to physically prevent access to an area of danger. They are an acceptable medium term solution and can be purchased from most safety equipment suppliers. It is much cheaper than a prosecution and/or a claim for a broken leg.
The above article was supplied by Stallard Kane Associates (SKA), which provides members of FeRFA with a support service on matters relating to health & safety and employment law. SKA also offers FeRFA members a free business risk assessment and help to take a snap shot of due diligence, to better understand if their businesses are truly compliant and able to best defend themselves during a legal challenge.

This article has been reproduced from the Contract Flooring Journal. You can find them at