Supermarket giant Tesco Stores Limited was fined £733,333:33 on 24 January 2020 for breaching health and safety law after a rigorous investigation by Dacorum Borough Council’s Environmental Health Officers.
Tesco had pleaded guilty at a previous hearing to breaches of its duties under Section 2 and Section 3 of The Health & Safety at Work Act 1974. Those duties required Tesco, so far as reasonably practicable, to operate and manage its stores so as to ensure customers were not exposed to risks to their safety and to ensure the health and safety at work of Tesco staff.
On Monday 6 August 2015, a previously fit and active 91-year-old customer, Dennis Satchell, pushed his trolley into one of the aisles of meat and dairy produce and there slipped on pooling watery liquid leaking from refrigerator units at Tesco ‘Extra’ store in Jarman Way, Hemel Hempstead. He fell and suffered multiple hip fractures, and had to have surgery to put a femoral pin in his leg. Very fortunately for a man of his years sustaining such an injury, Mr. Satchell survived, albeit without the ability still to bend the leg which had been broken.
The leaks should have been able to drain away, but had not been able to do so because of blockage in the drains under the floor. The drains had become blocked because of bacteria setting the leakage into a jelly-like consistency, which prevented further liquid passing through. To get at the problem, Tesco eventually had to make holes in the floor: this was done within two days of report for a similar drainage problem in the bakery, but it was not done at all for the drains serving the leakage from the refrigeration units in the meat and dairy aisles until after Mr. Satchell had sustained his injury.
Despite such management systems as were in place, Tesco failed either to cure the underlying blockage or effectively to deal with the pooling leakage from refrigeration units over an extensive period. The problems first manifested themselves on 5 June 2015, 63 days before the accident. Over the two months to 6 August, Tesco had its maintenance engineers in several times, but to no material effect, other than that they and other Tesco staff at intervals used machines to suck up the pool of leakage, only to have that pool return because the leaks were continuous and the drains blockage still there.
Management failed to implement a number of options to mitigate the risk, such as turning off refrigeration units, closing all or parts of the aisles affected or using barriers to restrict access. Staff working on the shop floor had been complaining to store management, and had been reduced, in the absence of other effective measures being taken, to putting down flattened cardboard to try to soak up the leaks – thereby introducing a further trip hazard.
The Court heard that slips and trips had long been identified, both by Tesco and by regulators such as HSE, as the single greatest cause of injuries being sustained in stores, and that Tesco – the UK’s largest grocer and Europe’s second largest – has over 3,000 stores in the UK alone, of which the Jarman Way ‘Extra’ store is amongst the largest 10%.
Tesco, whilst it admitted guilt, did not accept the extent of its offending, arguing that it bore only a medium level of culpability, that the failures giving rise to the injury being sustained were failures local to the Jarman Way store, and that there was not a high likelihood of injury from slipping by reason of its safety failures. District Judge Leigh-Smith had to hold several hearings and hear from a number of witnesses and experts in order to determine the matter. He found that Tesco had been highly culpable, that the maintenance issues repeatedly reported through Tesco’s Bengaluru call centre should have been identified and addressed at area management level, and that there was a high likelihood of people slipping and sustaining a material level of injury. He is due in the coming weeks also to fix the amount of costs Tesco should pay in addition to the fine.
Cllr Julie Banks, Dacorum Borough Council’s Portfolio Holder for Community and Regulatory Services, said: ‘This sentence concludes an investigation that has lasted more than four years and reflects the hard work and dedication of the Council’s Environmental Health Officers who investigated this case.
‘We will always take action where we deem it necessary to protect the public. This case sends out an important message, highlighting the need for businesses to comply with health and safety law and take all appropriate measures to prevent risk of injury to their employees and the public.’
The Council’s environmental health team is employed to investigate serious accidents and ensure that businesses in Dacorum comply with health and safety law and are authorised to take action where they find non-compliance. Businesses can find free guidance and advice on the Health and Safety Executive website: www.hse.gov.uk.