The British coffee and sandwich chain, Pret a Manger, has been instructed to pay over £800,000 in penalties following repeated incidents where employees were trapped inside walk-in freezers.
The most recent incident leading to this prosecution occurred on 29th July 2021. An employee working at the Victoria Coach Station store in London became locked inside a commercial freezer, typically set at a temperature of approximately -18 degrees Celsius, while wearing only jeans and a t-shirt. Due to the limited space within the freezer, she attempted to stay warm by moving around. However, as time passed, she began to feel the effects of the extreme cold. Her breathing became constrained, and she lost sensation in her thighs and feet.
In an attempt to shield herself from the frigid air blowing out from the ventilation system, she tore up a cardboard box containing chocolate croissants. Unfortunately, her hands were too cold and painful to effectively dismantle the box. After approximately two and a half hours, a colleague eventually found her, distressed and fearing for her life. She was subsequently taken to the hospital and treated for suspected hypothermia.
The Health and Safety team of Westminster City Council determined that there was no appropriate risk assessment in place for employees working in temperature-controlled environments. Records from Pret’s reporting system also revealed several incidents related to malfunctioning or frozen push buttons in the preceding 19 months. This included a previous incident at the same remote kitchen in January 2020 when an employee became trapped in the walk-in freezer, unable to open the door from the inside because the internal door release mechanism was non-functional.
Pret a Manger, which manages 424 stores within the UK and 558 stores globally, admitted to breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act. They were directed to pay the full costs incurred by the council, along with a victim surcharge, within 28 days. During sentencing, the District Judge set an initial penalty of £1.6 million, which was subsequently reduced to £800,000 as a result of the company’s early guilty plea and the mitigation put forth on their behalf. It’s worth noting that in 2021, the sandwich chain reported a turnover of £461.5 million.
Following the verdict, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Communities, Public Protection, and Licensing at Westminster Council, Councillor Aicha Less, expressed, “The alarming details of this case highlight a serious lapse in due care and attention. This incident underscores the importance of not overlooking fundamental safety measures, as they can have severe consequences.”
“We hope that the substantial fine imposed by the court serves as a warning to all businesses, preventing any similar incidents from occurring in the future. Westminster City Council will continue collaborating with businesses to ensure that the highest standards of health and safety are consistently upheld and that staff are educated in safe practices.”