Hours spent in a cramped train cab sitting awkwardly on an uncomfortable seat has taken its toll on many train drivers’ backs. Now ASLEF has secured an important court ruling that will give hope to those who have suffered back injuries as a result of the poor design of seats.
David Eaglen drove 155 and 158 diesal units for Arriva Trains Northern across the Pennines from the early 1990s.
In 2003 he reported to his employer that he had injured his back. He said this was because of the shape and design of the seat in the 158s which required him to sit far back and, with the shape of the seat cushion, adopt an awkward posture. The seat was so flat and low at the back and raised at the front that his legs were actually higher than his bottom.
Pressing down on the DSD pedal while sitting in such an unnatural position put painful pressure on David’s legs and the raised seat dug into his thigh.
This aggravated an already bad back.
The Court agreed with David that the design of the seat on the 158 was a breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations (PUWER) 1998 . This is significant because 44 158 units were overhauled a few years ago but the same design of seat that caused David such discomfort was installed.
The trouble with PUWER is that the duty under Regulation 4 which deals with the selection of work equipment for employees is not strict. It requires employers only to select “suitable” equipment. The codes of practice to the regulations say that ergonomic risks should be taken into account when selecting work equipment.
Arriva argued there was no foreseeable risk at all from providing these type of seats. Yet in court the Judge took evidence of the foreseeability of the risk from two ergonomists. One described the seating angle as putting the body and legs at an acute angle (less than 90 degrees) which resulted in discomfort to the lower back.
An open angle greater than 90 degrees between the trunk and thighs is needed to avoid injury. Therefore, the ergonomist said, the seats represent “a foreseeable risk of discomfort”.
Both medical experts in the case – the one for the claimant and the one for the defendant - recognised a link between postural problems and aggravation of back injuries so the Judge found that it followed that a properly conducted risk assessment would have recognised the risk of injury was foreseeable.
Arriva was therefore in breach of duty in retaining seats with a risk of injury after PUWER 1998 came in and also in breach of PUWER for failing to select suitable work equipment when the cabs were overhauled and identical seating was provided to the defective previous design.