If, as you read this, you are at work and sipping from your favourite mug, ponder this – could your mug be ‘work equipment’?

In a recent Northern Ireland personal injury case, the court decided that a ‘Miss Piggy’ mug was work equipment.

Mrs Rooney was a canteen assistant at a primary school. She had worked there for seven years. It was well known that staff would bring in cups or mugs for general use in the canteen. Someone (who remained unidentified) brought in a ‘Miss Piggy’ mug. It wasn’t inspected at the time. Cups and mugs that were being used were inspected while being washed to check for chips or cracks.

On the day of the accident in March 2011, Mrs Rooney started to wash up in the canteen kitchen. She wore gloves to wash two or three dirty tins. She then took the gloves off and dried the tins and also some mugs. Whilst drying the offending Miss Piggy mug, the handle came off and the sharp edge of the handle cut Miss Rooney’s wrist, causing a nasty injury requiring surgery and resulting in Mrs Rooney being off work for a year.

The case concerned the interpretation of the Northern Ireland equivalent of the Great Britain (GB) Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER).

By way of background, both the Northern Ireland and GB regulations apply to “work equipment provided for use or used by an employee … at work” and require that an employer “shall ensure that work equipment is maintained in an efficient state, in efficient working order and in good repair”. The definition of “work equipment”, is similar with the Northern Irish version including “equipment” alongside “machinery, appliance, apparatus, tool or installation for use at work (whether exclusively or not)” which is found in the GB version. The word “use” in relation to work equipment in both sets of regulations covers “any activity involving work equipment and includes starting, stopping, programming, setting, transporting, repairing, modifying, maintaining, servicing and cleaning.”

In Mrs Rooney’s case, the court considered an important Scottish case brought under PUWER which clarified that any machinery etc that performed a “useful, practical function in relation to the purposes of that undertaking” was work equipment. A later case decided however that work equipment would only become subject to the PUWER obligations when it was “provided or used in circumstances in which it was…incorporated into and adopted as part of the employer’s business or other undertaking, whether as a result or being provided by the employer for use in it or as a result of being provided by anyone else and being used by the employee in it with the employer’s consent and endorsement.”

In Mrs Rooney’s case, the court found it relatively straightforward to decide that 1) the Miss Piggy mug was “work equipment” – it was ‘equipment’ and Mrs Rooney was cleaning it at work in her capacity as a canteen assistant and 2) the obligations under the regulations applied and Mrs Rooney’s employer was in breach of those obligations. The court didn’t have to decide what the outcome would have been had a teacher of pupil been injured – this would have been more tricky.

So, returning to the question I posed at the start – could your mug be ‘work equipment’? The answer is – it may well be. In the Scottish case mentioned earlier, one of the judges considered that items such as clocks to let employees know the time, kettles for them to make tea or coffee and water coolers would all be work equipment, as would screwdrivers or radios of their own which employees were permitted to take into work and use. The barrister representing Mrs Rooney argued that if a kettle and water cooler was work equipment, then so should cups and mugs.

Whether or not you would have a claim under PUWER in the unfortunate event you cut yourself on your favourite mug is another issue however – you would still have to establish that the regulations applied to your particular situation and this might be more difficult than in Mrs Rooney’s case.