A Pret a Manger employee was trapped in a walk-in freezer for two and a half hours on 29 July 2021. She was found in a state of distress, experiencing difficulty breathing and having lost sensation in her legs and feet. She was subsequently treated for hypothermia.
An investigation by Westminster City Council found that a suitable risk assessment had not been carried out. Pret a Manger was prosecuted, and last month, the company was fined £800,000 and ordered to pay an additional £23,667 in costs.
The fine, and the publicity it has attracted, stands as a salient reminder that all businesses must maintain a dynamic approach to health and safety in the workplace, including the continuous review of policies, procedures and facilities. Crucially, business must act promptly and proactively when they receive warnings or become aware of issues which may pose a potential health and safety risk.
Under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, employers have a duty to minimise risks to health in the workplace so far as reasonably practicable. The particular risks relating to In temperature-controlled environments have been highlighted by the Health and Safety Executive which identifies the importance of being able to open doors to walk-in freezers from the inside and recommends installing trapped person alarms where appropriate. Further guidance in the British Standard BS 7915:1998 ‘Ergonomics of the thermal environment - Guide to design and evaluation of working practices for cold indoor working environments’ also underlines the necessity of conducting a risk assessment to identify appropriate precautions, such as personal protective equipment at lower temperatures.
This particular incident was preceded by several callouts in the 19 months beforehand due to ineffective internal push buttons, including a previous occasion at this same location in January 2020, where an employee was locked in a freezer after the internal door release mechanism malfunctioned.
Pret entered a guilty plea to an offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. The District Judge initially considered a fine of £1.6m, taking into account the failure to act on previous warnings. However, the fine was subsequently reduced after consideration of Pret a Manger’s early plea and its mitigation. This included the full review which Pret a Manger had carried out following the incident. It had also worked with the manufacturer of the fridge to prevent recurrence, including revisiting all existing systems and, where appropriate, enhancing these processes.