Cellar door accidents are more common than people think. Many tragic accidents occur leaving victims with life changing injuries. Earlier this year a woman died after falling down the cellar steps at a pub in Yorkshire. Hefty fines are not uncommon – SA Brains were fined £140,000 a few years ago when a man suffered a fractured skull after falling into an unlocked cellar.

Pub owner and operators’ responsibilities

As the owner or manager of licensed premises, and an employer, you owe a duty of care to protect the health and safety of your staff, customers and lawful visitors. If you employ more than 5 people you will need to have a written health and safety policy and to perform a formal assessment of the risks to your staff and customers and visitors.  If you negligently breach this duty of care an injured party can claim damages.

You also have obligations under statute – for example, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Occupier’s Liability Acts. A breach of these can lead to you being prosecuted in the magistrates or Crown Court where you may be fined and/or sentenced to a period in prison.

Unlimited fines in Health and Safety cases

The fines for offences under Health and Safety legislation are now unlimited. Sentencing guidelines particularly impact on large organisations convicted of serious health and safety breaches.  Sentence levels are increased to ensure that the sentence is proportionate to the offence with fines taking into account the financial circumstances of the offending organisation and its turnover.

Practical pointers

  • A successful defence to any health and safety action relies upon you being able to show that you took all reasonable steps to avoid accident or injury.
  • A comprehensive risk assessment is a crucial part of this process and should be carried out regularly.
  • The findings must be acted upon and the assessment must be regularly reviewed. Records of assessments and reviews must be kept.
  • Your risk assessment should identify ways of avoiding hazards – e.g. leaving cellar hatches open, etc.  It should also identify how any such hazards should be dealt with. It is crucial that staff are trained in how to avoid injury to both themselves and customers.
  • You may have a generic risk assessment across your estate but it is important to tailor this to make it specific to each individual site where hazards will be different due to the structure of the building e.g. floor levels, location of cellars etc.

Cellars are often close to customer toilets. You need to consider whether the cellar door should be locked at times, adequate signage is essential as is good lighting.

Should you be convicted of a health and safety breach then a commitment to learning lessons, improving systems and an early guilty plea, where appropriate, are likely to help to reduce the fine.


Of course accidents happen even when all necessary precautions have been taken to avoid them and sometimes insurance claims have to be made to cover these.  You must be careful that your insurer is not able to avoid liability when investigating a claim because it can show that your health and safety measures were not up to scratch.  For example, if you employ more than 5 people you have a legal duty to have a written health and safety policy and to carry out a risk assessment.  Failure to carry out this basic level of preparation may lead your insurer to void your insurance.  Conversely if you have invested a lot of time and effort in health and safety you may be able to negotiate a reduction in your insurance premium.  In all cases check that you are happy with any exclusions put on the policy.

Further Guidance

The HSE has published useful guidance on carrying out a risk assessment.

There is specific guidance on slips and trips in the catering industry here  as well as template risk assessments and examples here

For further information contact Paul Burnley

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.