Fine of £800,000 after café worker left locked in walk-in freezer

September 4, 2023

Pret a Manger has been fined £800,000 after a member of staff was left trapped in sub-zero temperatures for 2.5 hours.

The coffee and sandwich chain pleaded guilty to an offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 at Westminster Magistrates Court, following an investigation by Westminster City Council’s Health and Safety team.

On 29 July 2021, a member of staff at the Victoria Coach Station shop became entrapped in a walk-in commercial freezer typically set to run at around -18 degrees dressed only in jeans and a t-shirt. She tried to keep warm by moving around (although space in the freezer is limited), but after some time she began to feel unwell from the cold, finding that her breathing was becoming restricted and that she was losing sensation in her thighs and feet.

To try and keep warm, she tore up a cardboard box containing chocolate croissants to use as cover from the ventilator blowing out cold air but found that her hands were too cold and painful to break the box apart. The worker was eventually found by a colleague, in a state of distress and believing she was going to die. She was taken to hospital where she was treated for suspected hypothermia.

The investigation established that there was no suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments. The reporting system used by Pret revealed that there had been a number of call-outs relating to defective or frozen push buttons in the previous 19 months, including a previous occasion at the same remote kitchen in January 2020 when a worker had become entrapped in the walk-in freezer, having been unable to open the door from the inside. On that occasion, the internal door release mechanism was not working.

Basic safety measures

Pret a Manger pleaded guilty and was ordered to pay the Council its full costs, in addition to a victim surcharge, within 28 days. When passing her sentence, the District Judge decided on a starting point of £1.6 million, which was reduced to £800,000 following credit for an early guilty plea and mitigation advanced on behalf of the company.

Cllr Aicha Less, Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Communities, Public Protection and Licensing said: “The shocking details of this case show a lapse of due care and attention. This incident shows that overlooking basic safety measures can have the most serious consequences.

“We hope the significant fine awarded in court acts as a warning to all businesses and prevents anything similar from ever happening again.

“Westminster City Council will continue to work with businesses to make sure the highest levels of health and safety are consistently maintained and educate staff in safe practice.”

This is valid as of 4th September 2023.

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