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Pub fined £60k after worker falls into cellar

Incident highlights how EH food safety checks can also improve health and safety
02 September 2021 , Katie Coyne

EHPs involved in a serious injury case where an employee fell down a cellar have said the case underlines the important role of the profession in also checking H&S when doing food safety rounds.

The member of staff suffered life-changing injuries from the incident that happened at Mariners Freehouse in Trimley Saint Martin, near Felixstowe, on 19 May 2019, just hours into her first shift.

She fell through a cellar hatch behind the bar more than two metres onto the cellar floor, also hitting the cellar stairs as she went. The hatch had been left open and unguarded. The employee suffered a collapsed lung, multiple rib fractures, and back and head injuries.

In total she spent 36 days in hospital and still suffers with back pain when standing or sitting for any length of time, which has impacted future work that she is able to do.

Mariners Inns Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching sections 2 and 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act. Sentencing was held on 19 August at Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court where District Judge King imposed on the company a fine, surcharge and costs totalling £59,904.91.

King said this would have been higher, but he factored in the impact COVID has had on hospitality.

East Suffolk Council EHP involved in the case, Christine Walker, said it was not unusual for pubs to have a cellar hatch behind the bar, but it was unusual “in this day and age” to have one that was unguarded. She said the shocking case underlined to her, and her team, how important it was to look at H&S on routine food safety interventions.

She said: “It's brought home to us that we need to make sure that we are looking at any falls from heights in any businesses we're looking at for other reasons.”

Case details

Bar staff were expected to work around the open hatch and there was a practice of shouting a warning to other staff when the hatch was open. Yet behind the bar there were rope cordons which, if they had been used, would have highlighted the danger.

There was also a practice of leaving the bar gate and flap open so, potentially, customers could have also gone behind the bar and fallen.

Walker said she sat through hours of CCTV footage and found, in the four days leading up to the incident, the hatch was left open and unguarded 29 times.

The ropes were used straight after the incident, but once the injured worker had been taken to hospital the hatch was accessed a further six times with the hatch unguarded.

Walker said: “There are people working in a narrow area with a big hole in the floor, which if you're distracted, it's inevitable you're going to fall down in it, which is what happened in that case.

“The person [injured] was on a trial shift, it was the first day she'd ever been there. It could only have been a few hours into when she was starting, and she was distracted, as you can imagine, with a new job. She's distracted with the use of the till and there are customers demanding to be served.”

As soon as the incident was reported to EH, it issued a prohibition notice to stop the hatch from being used, followed by an improvement notice to put in place safer working practices.

The directors of Mariners Inns Ltd installed a new hatch and cordons and a hydraulic grill, which closes behind anyone who goes into the cellar so it is still possible to see someone who has gone down there but others can walk across it. This should make it impossible for anyone to fall down it again. Lighting has also been improved, and a handrail and non-slip treads to the cellar steps installed.

Items such as bottles of wine and ice machines that were stored in the cellar have been relocated so the frequency of needing to use the hatch has been reduced. 

King, when sentencing, said: “I accept that the company did not set out deliberately to cause harm, but that is not enough. There is the potential for risks in any business and that business has an obligation and duty to reduce the risks as much as reasonably possible. The defendant did not.

“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but hindsight here does not win the battle. I consider that this was an accident waiting to happen, given the inadequate measures taken. To me as a lay person, the risks of a large hole taking up the majority of a walking space can be foreseen – this accident could have happened to anyone there.”

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