In a recent decision of the Victorian County Court, a university has been ordered to pay $275,000 in damages to a security control room operator who worked on the university campus (Savage v Monash University and Programmed Maintenance Services Ltd [2017] VCC 1774).

The control room operator was walking from her car to the security control room in steel capped boots when she stepped through a puddle onto the uneven surface below and injured her ankle. The ankle injury required arthroscopic surgery, after which the control room operator developed a chronic pain condition and depression, and became incapacitated for work.

The location where the injury occurred was a wide section of a median strip separating two roads on the university’s campus. The section of the median strip was designated for pedestrians crossing the roads and was surfaced with a crushed granite/gravel material. On the particular day in question, rain water had pooled in sections of the median strip surface, creating puddles. The depth of those puddles was not immediately ascertainable nor was the state of the surface at the bottom of the puddles.

The control room operator stepped in a puddle, that was said to be two centimetres deep at the most, and rolled her ankle.

The Court found that the University had a responsibility to the 5000 plus students, staff and other visitors who used the crossing in question every day. The university had failed to ensure that the surface of the median strip crossing was properly maintained given its susceptibility to degradation and previous, though undocumented, instances of trips and falls.

The potential seriousness of any injury resulting from the uneven surface and the University’s failure to either fill-in ditches in the uneven surface, or replace the uneven surface with a permanent all-weather surface (like concrete) lead to a finding that its duty of care to those using the crossing had not been discharged.

The Court found the university liable for the control room operator’s injury and ordered that she be paid $275,000 in damages.

 

Lessons

Under common law and statute, employers have a responsibility to make sure that the working environment and any premises they maintain are safe for employees, clients and any other visitors.

Employers must take all reasonable steps necessary to ensure that even the smallest hazards are identified and addressed as and when they are identified (ideally through regular risk and safety audits).

In this case, the hazard of small puddles concealing an uneven surface from pedestrians was not obvious when the median strip crossing was dry. It was not until rain water pooled and created puddles that an obvious hazard developed.

Learning from this example, employers should consider how weather conditions or other environmental changes may impact on their premises or workplace and how such changes could result in previously minor hazards becoming significant hazards.

 

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