The training and supervision which is provided to an employee will vary depending on the risks associated with the employee’s duties. Where an employee is injured at work and the employer is found to have provided insufficient training or supervision, the employer faces the risk of being found negligent and liable for damages. This is precisely what occurred in the recent case of Hobongwana v Benteler South Africa (Pty) Ltd.
Hobongwana sustained a lower back injury when operating machinery at Benteler’s automotive manufacturing plant. Hobongwana was employed through a temporary employment service, Ulrica and Associates, and was reallocated to work on a new machine on the day he was injured. He specifically informed his supervisor that he did not know how to operate the new machine. He was given a practical demonstration which lasted less than 15 minutes and the standard operating procedure was not provided to him. He was left to operate the machine unsupervised and suffered an injury a short while later.
Hobongwana contended that Benteler breached its legal duty in that it failed to ensure that he had received proper training on how to use the machinery and failed to supervise his operation of the machinery. While he did receive induction training, it was of a general nature and did not equip him to properly operate the machinery on the various production lines nor did it cover the specific risks of those machines.
The test for negligence as formulated in Kruger v Coetzee is trite in South African law and provides that negligence will be established if:
- “a person in the position of the defendant:
- would foresee the reasonable possibility of his conduct injuring another person or property and causing him patrimonial loss; and
- would take reasonable steps to guard against such occurrence and;
- the defendant failed to take such steps.”
Benteler admitted that the machinery carried inherent risks of harm should it be used improperly through inexperience or lack of training and no persons were permitted to operate the machinery without the necessary training. It was thus clear that Benteler foresaw the reasonably possibility of harm and should have taken steps to prevent it.
The court found that Benteler failed to provide sufficient training, as required by company policy, prior to instructing the plaintiff to operate on the line. Furthermore, insufficient supervision of the line was afforded and the defendant failed to ensure that the machinery was operated in a safe and controlled manner. The employer thus failed to take reasonable steps to preserve and protect the bodily integrity and physical well-being of the employee.
In applying the well-established and accepted “but for” test for factual causality, the court concluded that but for Benteler’s negligence, Hobongwana would not have sustained injury. Had he been afforded proper training, instruction and supervision on the use of machinery he would have had a better appreciation of the machines operation and been aware of the inherent risks involved therein. With regard to legal causation, the harm to Hobongwana was foreseeable and Benteler’s conduct was found to be sufficiently closely linked thereto. Benteler was found liable for damages and for legal costs.
This case should be an important reminder for employers to assess the current training which is provided to their employees, especially where there is inherent risk of harm involved with operations. In addition, where employees are employed through a labour brokering service, the statutory limitations on compensation for occupational injuries does not apply where there is a case against the broker's client for damages, as was the case here. Appropriate and sufficient supervision is required at all levels to ensure that there is proper health and safety at work and it is not enough to provide general induction training without considering the specific risks associated with the employee’s duties. Employers who view training as a simple tick box exercise run the risk of employee injury and associated claims for damages.
Authored by Wessel Badenhorst, Samantha Joshua, and Mmathabo Lekalakala.