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Posted On: Mar. 2, 1997 12:00 AM CST

LONDON-As many as one in four U.K. employers may be putting themselves at risk for lawsuits by failing to implement health and safety measures required under European Union directives, says a health and safety lawyer.

While U.K. businesses are generally aware of their health and safety responsibility to employees, they are ignoring their responsibilities to others such as subcontractors, visitors and members of the public, warned Gareth Watkins, a partner in the Sheffield, England, office of Nabarro Nathanson.

Mr. Watkins made these remarks in conjunction with the release late last month of the results of a survey his firm commissioned to ascertain the level of awareness among U.K. companies of health and safety regulations.

Alan Fleming, risk manager for London-based brewer Guinness P.L.C., said that "this certainly is a live issue" for Guinness and other U.K. companies, though he was unable to gauge the number of companies that are coming to terms with the problem.

At Guinness "we're putting a lot of attention into this area and it is exercising our minds more than somewhat," he said.

The highest-level corporate officials overseeing health and safety from 100 medium-sized and large companies were polled, representing a spectrum of industries but predominantly in the manufacturing sector. Most frequently, the executive interviewed was the corporate secretary, though larger companies tended to have a dedicated health and safety director or manager.

Unprompted, interviewees said they were not very aware of the so-called six-pack of European Union health and safety regulations, though awareness levels shot up when the respondents were prompted.

The "six-pack" is a set of directives issued by the European Commission in 1992 that govern health and safety in the workplace. They are:

The Management and Health & Safety at Work Regulations, encompassing risk assessments, appointment of persons responsible for compliance with the directives, and coordination and cooperation between employers when more than one company is involved in a project at a given worksite.

The Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations, governing workplace conditions such as space, workstations, floors, windows, traffic and rest.

The Manual Handling Operations Regulations, outlining risk assessment and reduction requirements for any physical labor.

The Health & Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations, taking into account risk assessment, work breaks, eyesight provisions and training.

The Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations, covering equipment suitability and maintenance, information and training.

The Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations, covering protective equipment suitability, review and maintenance, as well as ensuring its use.

The survey found that the provisions of the laws that employers were most familiar with were the need to carry out risk assessments, and provisions covering eyesight tests for computer display screen users. Up to 25% of the respondents were unaware of their legal responsibility to carry out health assessments of their employees and coordinate health and safety activities with other companies present at a worksite.

Mr. Watkins said he was also concerned that only 60% of the organizations carried out risk assessments of subcontractors, and only 40% considered the health and safety impact of their operations on the general public.

"Some businesses are clearly unaware of the fact that they are legally obliged to produce written emergency procedures and then to circulate them widely," said Mr. Watkins. "On sites where there are staff from different organizations working together, the picture becomes even more complicated. On these shared sites, only half of the companies said they made their information available to employees of other companies."

Last December, the House of Lords upheld a lower court finding that chemical company Associated Octel Ltd. was guilty of failing to take reasonable care following an on-site accident to an employee of one of its contractors.

In 1990, the company shut down its Ellesmere Port plant to repair the lining of a chlorine tank, engaging a contractor for the work. An employee of the contractor was inside a tank carrying out repair work when a light bulb he was carrying broke and acetone fumes inside the tank were ignited by the electric current from the bulb. The employee was badly burned.

The Health and Safety Executive, a government body responsible for health and safety issues in the United Kingdom, focused on three aspects that it said were particularly hazardous: the acetone, which the worker was using to clean the tank, wasn't kept in a closed container; the employee didn't use a safety lamp; and there was no ventilation.

Associated Octel was fined (British pounds) 25,000 ($40,000) and ordered to pay (British pounds) 60,000 ($96,000) in HSE's costs for failing to ensure that its subcontractors were following best practice.

A "core of very senior judges" in the U.K. Court of Appeal and the House of Lords have previous experience leading public inquiries into health and safety issues, Mr. Watkins said.

Based on what they learned from those inquiries, the judges are "giving legislation the very widest interpretation the wording can bear," and imposing stiffer sentences for failure to protect the safety of workers and the public, he added.

Although the employment profile in the United Kingdom is shifting to the services from the industrial sector, and most employers appear generally aware of their responsibilities under European Union regulations, accident rates do not appear to be falling as much as would be expected, said Mr. Watkins.

For a 12-month period ending in 1995, major injuries rose by 5% over the previous 12-month period, though fatal injuries showed a 22% decrease in the construction sector and a 20% decrease in the service sector. In contrast, non-fatal injuries rose in the manufacturing, construction and service industries.

The report concluded that employers must implement a corporate culture that does not accept any level of accidents. In addition, the report warns that the dangers of the modern workplace and of using new technology are yet to be identified. "We need to consider carefully the implications of the modern working environment and decide how best to protect employees from the potential dangers they may pose," it stated. What's more, "no win, no fee" contingency arrangements, new to the English legal system, most likely will increase the level of litigation brought by employees, warned the report.