WH Smith (Retail Holdings) Limited has been ordered to pay fines and costs totalling not far short of £½ million after a member of the public was left with life-changing injuries caused by falling into a basement through a trapdoor on the shop floor at the Taunton WH Smith store, which had been opened during trading hours.
The 64 year old customer was visiting the shop on 16 February 2014, looking to buy a birthday card with dachshunds on it for a dog-loving friend.
Meanwhile, two WH Smith members of staff were accessing storage in the basement through an open trapdoor set into the surface of the trading floor.
The basement was almost three metres below the shop floor.
The customer was walking along, looking at the cards on sale, when she fell through the large hole in the floor left by the open trapdoor, into the basement.
She was taken to hospital and subsequently required three operations to rebuild her heel.
One of the members of staff, who was standing near the open trapdoor, grabbed for the falling customer, and managed to grab hold of her, but not to stop her fall.
The falling customer’s arm caught a chain holding the trapdoor in its open position, which slammed the trapdoor shut, breaking the member of staff’s hold, but also stopping that member of staff from herself following the customer down into the basement.
The member of staff sustained bruising to her arms.
An investigation by Taunton Deane Borough Council found 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.
Taunton Deane Borough Council said:
“There was no guarding/edge protection or signage around the hatch and there was no written risk assessment in place for the procedure. The accident at Taunton was forseeable and preventable.”
There had also been a previous environmental health officer intervention regarding the WH Smith store in Tenby, Wales, which had a similar basement giving rise to similar dangers.
Another WH Smith store at Southwold, Suffolk, had similarly inadequately controlled basement storage access issues.
After the accident, 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.
WH Smith (Retail Holdings) Limited pleaded guilty at Taunton Crown Court in May 2018 to breaching its general duties regarding health and safety under Section 3(1) (duty to non-employees, including customers) and Section 2(1) (duty to employee) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
Today, in fining the company, the judge said:
“There was a lapse in focus of the corporate mind.”
He described the accident as the ‘foreseeable’ result of the offending and said that ‘any other shopper’ would have been ‘exposed to a risk of falling’ through the trapdoor when it was open, given the ‘lack of protection’.
As well as fines of £337,500, WH Smith (Retail Holdings) Limited was ordered to pay £135,492.66 towards the council’s costs of the investigation and subsequent prosecution.
The Taunton Deane 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.”