Burrows v Northumbrian Water (2014) 

Queen’s Bench Division (Newcastle Registry) 

In February 2010 Mr Burrows accidentally fell on black ice and fractured his ankle. He was a long serving employee of the defendant and had been walking along a concrete access road leading to a remote unmanned water reservoir in the course of his work for the utility. On the day of the accident his job as a Trunk Mains Operator required him to adjust valves and make emergency visits to unmanned sites. 

His initially pleaded claim set out the following allegations against the defendant:

  • Common law negligence
  • Breaches of statutory duties imposed by the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 "the Workplace Regulations"
  • Breaches of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 on the part of Northumbrian Water
  • That Northumbrian Water failed to address the risk of black ice at remote locations
  • Failure to provide a vehicle with tyres that were adequate for the conditions (removing the need for the claimant to leave his vehicle and avoid contact with the ice)

The case was rejected by the county court and Mr Burrows appealed on a more limited range of alleged breaches. The central question then concerned what measures needed to be taken by Northumbrian Water regarding the risk that emergency workers might slip on black ice when on foot on remote access roads. 

Northumbrian Water contended that it had taken all such measures as were required of it. 

A key fact in this case was that the access road (accepted as a traffic route under the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992) was used only weekly or in emergencies in complete contrast to a walkway in a factory or a car park of industrial premises. 

Given the limited use of the access road in question the High Court found that Northumbrian Water had done all that was reasonably practicable. It rejected an argument by Mr Burrows that the road should have been checked daily as that would create an additional risk to any employee required to check the road. 

It also dismissed an argument that the workplace had not been maintained under the Workplace Regulations; the mere presence of snow and ice was not sufficient to show that the workplace had not been maintained. Maintenance involved cleaning but only “as appropriate”. The court acknowledged that its approach to the case might have been different if the access road had been busier. 

The case turned on its own facts but is a useful indicator of the approach a court will take to the standards expected in these sorts of circumstances. A remote access road used infrequently represents a much lower priority in the overall “safety case”, even when there is a known hazard in the form of snow and ice. Resource is better targeted on those busy access routes where footfall is highest and the real risks are the greater.