General Cleaning Contractors v Christmas
House of Lords
Citations:  AC 180;  2 WLR 6;  2 All ER 1110; 51 LGR 109;  CLY 2433.
The defendant was a cleaning company which was contracted to clean a client’s windows. The claimant was an experienced employee of the defendant. To perform the work, the claimant stepped out onto a six inch window sill outside a window with an automatic locking mechanism. The locking mechanism was slightly defective. Due to this defect, when the claimant was climbing around the window, it slammed shut on his finger. This caused him to lose his balance and fall, sustaining further injuries.
The window’s defect was a common one, and the risk was known to the defendant. While the defendant provided its employees with safety belts for this kind of work, the claimant had been unable to use a belt as there was nothing on the structure to attach it to (something the defendant could do nothing about). Additionally, the defendant failed to provide the claimant with any equipment which might have stopped the window from shutting.
The House of Lords held in favour of the claimant. The defendant was in breach of their duty of care because they failed to devise a reasonably safe system of work in relation to an obvious risk. They failed to instruct employees to test windows before cleaning them, nor did they provide the equipment needed to stop automatically locking windows from closing (such as wedges).
This Case is Authority For…
Employers owe their employees a duty to take reasonable steps to provide a safe system of work. In discharging this duty, they cannot leave dealing with common risks to employees’ judgement. Employers must also take reasonable steps to ensure that any safety instructions they give are properly carried out by employees.
Earl Jowitt dismissed the relevance of volenti non fit injuria in this case, agreeing with the Court of Appeal. The other Lords did not comment specifically on this point.