Employers have a common law duty to establish safe working conditions for their employees. This duty extends to the safe use of machinery and equipment. In Hobongwana v Benteler South Africa (Pty) Ltd (494/2019)  ZAECQBHC 6 (6 February 2023) an employee sustained a lower back injury at the employer’s automotive manufacturing plant and instituted a claim for damages against the employer.
In terms of the employee’s employment contract, the employee was obligated to execute the instructions of his manager conscientiously, with a failure to do so potentially resulting in disciplinary action. The equipment at the employer’s plant carried inherent risks of harm to the users thereof, particularly where machinery was used with inexperience or a lack of training.
One day the employee was instructed by his team leader to operate the rear axle assembly line after he had recently been moved from his initial position where he had been operating for 6 months. The instruction was followed by a short demonstration of about 5 to 6 minutes. Once the employee had completed one round of the operation under supervision, he was advised to continue operating the machine and left to work on the line without any supervision and reminded that the client was awaiting its parts. The employee attempted to raise his concerns but they fell on deaf ears and reminded of the terms of his employment contract and that he must execute his instructions. At no stage was the employee declared competent to work on the line nor was he provided with sufficient training on the dangers of operating the machinery and amongst others, training on the applicable safety measures.
In considering the matter, the High Court reiterated the test for establishing negligence and found that the employer was negligent through its failure to adhere to its legal duty to ensure that no persons are instructed or permitted to operate machinery and equipment without first having received the necessary training and proper instruction.
Furthermore, the court found that the employer had failed to take reasonable steps to guard against the dangers inherent in operating the machinery and the training provided to the employee was wholly insufficient to properly equip him to operate the line without any supervision. The employee would not have sustained the injury but for the negligence of the employer and the harm suffered by the employee was therefore foreseeable.
The employer was found liable for the damages and ordered to pay the costs of the hearing including that of the employee’s expert witness who worked as an occupational therapist.
From this case, it should be clear to employers that great care needs to be taken to ensure that employees are adequately instructed, trained, supervised and ultimately declared competent to operate machinery and/or any equipment that may endanger the safety of employees given that a failure to do so can result in liability for the employer should an employee be injured.
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