‘Lapse in focus’ costs WH Smith £0.5m for customer's trapdoor fall

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Stationery supplier WH Smith has been slapped with a bill of nearly £0.5m in fines and costs after a member of the public was left with life-changing injuries when they fell into a basement through a trapdoor on the shop floor at its Taunton store.

The 64-year-old customer had been visiting the shop to buy a birthday card when the incident happened on 16 February 2014.

Two staff members had been trying to access storage in the basement, which was three metres below the shop floor. Access was through the trapdoor, which had been left open leaving a large space.  

As the customer was walking and looking at the cards on sale, she fell through the hole into the basement. 

She was taken to hospital and underwent three operations to rebuild her heel. 

Taunton Deane Borough Council (TDBC), prosecuting, said there were inadequacies in the system of work, in which the staff member on the shop floor who was handing items down to - and receiving them up from - a colleague in the basement, was also expecting to be 'guarding' the open trapdoor to stop customers or anyone else on the trading floor falling into the hole. 

There was no guarding or edge protection or signage around the hatch and there was no written risk assessment in place for the procedure, the statement added.

Taunton Crown Court, at sentencing on 31 October, further heard how two other incidents could have alerted the company to the failures in its use of trapdoors.

In 2011 a Pembrokeshire Environmental Health Officer had been forced to intervene at a WH Smith store in Tenby, Wales when a trapdoor in the shop floor was similarly used to access sales storage.

An investigation in February 2014 also revealed that a third WH Smith store in Southwold, Suffolk, had been using basement storage accessed by a trapdoor in the shop floor. “These ought to have put the company on notice of the potential existence of the risk associated with the use of basement storage, and the company ought to have done more, prior to the accident at Taunton, to enquire as to the presence of basements elsewhere in the WH Smith estate,” said TDBC.

After the accident at Taunton, WH Smith moved the items that had been stored in the basement there to a store room, locked the basement out of use and completed a written risk assessment for accessing it should the need arise.

His Honour Judge Ticehurst Judge told the court: “There was a lapse in focus of the corporate mind," before imposing £337,500 in fines plus £135,492.66 in costs to the Council.

WH Smith (Retail Holdings) Limited was found guilty of breaching Section 3(1) (duty to non-employees, including customers) and Section 2(1) (duty to employee) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Taunton Deane's portfolio holder, councillor Patrick Berry, said “A customer suffered serious injuries as a result of failings in safety procedures at the Taunton WH Smith store. One of our top priorities is the wellbeing of people in our Borough, so I hope the size of this fine serves as a warning to all businesses, that the health and safety of all who use their premises – be they customers, employees or other visitors – is paramount.”

“There is plenty of guidance available to help businesses manage work at height safely, including on the Health and Safety Executive’s website for work at height," he added.

Taunton Deane Borough Coucil press release here 

HSE Work at height regulations here


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