Protecting the people behind the headlines
14 October 2015
Dr Karen McDonnell, occupational health and safety policy adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA), discusses the devastation behind the headlines.
On September 4, one of the largest fines ever issued was handed down to Hugo Boss for its failures which led to the death of a four-year-old boy.
The boy, out shopping with his parents at the fashion firm’s store in Bicester, was killed when an 18-stone mirror in a changing room fell on top of him. It should have been fixed to the wall.
These facts, and in particular the huge fine, should be shocking enough to jolt all retailers into at least thinking about their own health and safety procedures.
But a look behind the headlines would surely force any empathetic health and safety manager to ensure a thorough review is undertaken of all procedures and policies to avoid another tragedy.
The little boy’s name was Austen Harrison, and he lived in Crawley.
He had been enjoying a family day out with his parents, Simon and Irina, on June 4, 2013, and had just had dinner before they went into Hugo Boss so his dad could try on some suits.
Having put on a suit, Mr Harrison left Austen in the changing room briefly to show his wife Irina. That was the last time either of his parents would see him as the happy, smiling child they will remember.
After hearing a "quick loud sudden bang”, they rushed into the changing room to find the mirror on top of their son.
In a statement Mr Harrison told the inquest: "I was walking towards my wife Irina to choose a tie and Austen was behind me near the winged mirror. I heard a quick loud sudden bang, but no sound of breaking glass. I heard someone gasp and I looked and saw the mirror had fallen over. I knew Austen was underneath it as it was not lying flat to the floor."
A heartbreaking statement from his mother, also read at the inquest, said: "Austen and I travelled to Bicester to meet Simon after work. After dinner at Carluccio's, we walked to the Hugo Boss store. Austen was playing and waiting for his dad to try on a suit.
"Austen was looking at himself in front of the mirror when I heard a crash. We ran to the mirror and Austen was underneath it.
"His head was broken."
An off-duty junior doctor then assisted until paramedics arrived. Austen was taken to John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, but died four days later from head injuries.
Now take the time to consider the parents - on top of the shock at seeing their young boy in such a state and the suddenness of their loss, they are forced to relive the moment, first during the inquest proceedings, and then in the subsequent court case.
As a health and safety professional would you not do all you could to prevent not just the loss of a young life, but the stress, grief and devastation caused to his loved ones?
Hugo Boss was found to have failed in this most basic of duties.
The huge mirror was not fixed to the wall, instead left freestanding, which Judge Peter Ross said "would have been obvious to the untrained eye”, adding it was "nothing short of a miracle” it had not fallen before.
During the court case he also said there was a "systematic failure” in the health and safety procedures when the Bicester store was revamped.
The company has rightly been fined this astronomical sum, but nothing can put a price on the life of a child.
Health and safety professionals within companies that are public-facing will know of their legal duties to protect members of the public, and additional duties of care owed to the vulnerable, such as children like Austen.
We can look at statistics, policy, procedure and training all day, but the real reason for health and safety in the workplace is to protect the people behind the headlines.