Pret a Manger fined £800,000 after employee trapped in freezer

Pret a Manger has been fined £800,000 after an employee was trapped in one of its freezers for more than two hours, where she tried to use croissant boxes to stave off hypothermia.

The employee was wearing jeans and T-shirt when she was stuck in a walk-in freezer, which typicallyhad its temperature set at -18C, in July 2021, Westminster magistrates court was told.

When she was discovered two and half hours later at the chain’s Victoria coach station store, she was in a state of distress, struggling to breathe, and her legs and feet had gone numb.

She was taken to hospital, where she was treated for hypothermia. The company said it was “incredibly sorry”.

The court heard she had tried to tear up a cardboard box full of chocolate croissants to use as cover from the vent blowing out freezing air but found that her hands were too cold to break it apart.

After she was rescued, an investigation found there was no suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments.

Pret’s reporting system revealed there had been several call-outs relating to defective or frozen push buttons in the previous 19 months. This included one occasion at the same remote kitchen in January 2020 when a worker had become stuck in the walk-in freezer after being unable to open the door from the inside. In that incident the internal door release mechanism was not working.

The sandwich chain pleaded guilty to an offence contrary to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 after an investigation by Westminster council’s health and safety team.

District judge Neeta Minhas fined the company £800,000 plus £23,667 costs.

Councillor Aicha Less, deputy leader and cabinet member for communities, public protection and licensing, said: “The shocking details of this case show a lapse of due care and attention. This incident shows that overlooking basic safety measures can have the most serious consequences.

“We hope the significant fine awarded in court acts to all businesses as a warning, preventing this from ever happening again.

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“Westminster city council will continue to work with businesses to make sure the highest levels of health and safety are consistently maintained and educate staff in safe practice.”

Pret a Manger said: “We are incredibly sorry for our colleague’s experience and understand how distressing this must have been.

“We have carried out a full review and have worked with the manufacturer to develop a solution to stop this from happening again.

“Following the incident, we have revisited all our existing systems and where appropriate, enhanced these processes, and have cooperated fully with Westminster city council’s investigation.”