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Published: Wed, 07 Mar 2018

Speed v Thomas Swift & Co Ltd [1943] 1 KB 557

Employers duty to provide safe system of work; safe system should be considered in context


Mr Speed was a dock labourer employed by the defendant stevedores working on the loading of a ship from an adjacent barge. During the loading, an empty hook became caught in a section of the railing causing it, together with some timber lying against it to fall onto Mr Speed, causing him injury. Mr Speed successfully recovered damages from his employer for failing to provide a safe system of work. The employer appealed.


The employer is under a duty to provide his employees with a safe and proper system of working at common law under Wilsons & Clyde Coal Co Ltd v English [1938] AC 57. Mr Speed contended the failure to remove the railing and the timber amounted to a failure to provide a proper and safe system for the loading of the barrels of caustic soda on to the ship. The employers maintained the system employed was a proper one, and that it was the usual procedure to leave the railing in place when loading operations were carried out. There were particular features which applied to the ship which exposed the employees to additional dangers, including the fact that part of the railing in question had been removed following a previous collision leaving it attached only by rope, and the winch in use at the port was not in good order.


The Court of Appeal dismissed the defendant’s appeal. A safe system of work is to be considered in context, and may need to be adjusted to take into consideration specific circumstances of the job. Given the additional hazards posed by the circumstances of the loading, the employers should have taken steps to remove or secure the railings.

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