British sandwich chain Pret A Manger has been fined over $1 million after one of its employees got trapped in a freezer and was forced to use croissant boxes in an attempt to fend off hypothermia.
Westminster City Council, which investigated the incident, said the worker endured temperatures of -0.40° F (-18° C) for around two and a half hours when they got stuck in the walk-in freezer wearing just a t-shirt and jeans in July 2021.
The company, which employs over 6,000 people and has more than 400 stores across the U.K., pleaded guilty to breaching Britain’s workplace health and safety laws in court on Tuesday.
According to the council, the female staffer tried to keep warm in the extreme sub-zero conditions by moving around, but she soon began fearing for her life as her breathing became restricted and her thighs and feet became numb.
As her condition worsened, she tried to tear up a cardboard box full of chocolate croissants to use as cover from the ventilator blowing out cold air—but she found that her hands were too cold to break it apart.
Eventually, she was found in a “state of distress” by her colleague at the chain’s Victoria Coach Station branch before being taken to hospital, where she was treated for hypothermia, Westminster City Council said in a statement on Wednesday.
No suitable risk assessment
After the rescue, the council’s investigation found that Pret A Manger had failed to implement a suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments.
The company’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 kitchen in January 2020 when a worker became stuck in the walk-in freezer after a build-up of ice damaged the internal door release mechanism.
“The shocking details of this case show a lapse of due care and attention,” councilor Aicha Less, Westminster City Council’s deputy leader said. “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.”
Pret said it was “incredibly sorry” for the incident and added that new safety chains had been fitted to shop freezers to prevent future similar scenarios.
Having taken a break to recover from the distressing ordeal, the employee in question reportedly resumed her role at Pret as a team leader where she has been offered counselling by the company.
“We have carried out a full review and have worked with the manufacturer to develop a solution to stop this from happening again,” a Pret A Manger spokesperson told Fortune. “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.”
What to do if a worker has hypothermia
According to The National Library of Medicine, there are about 20,000 hypothermia-related deaths a year in Britain, about 25,000 in the USA, and 8,000 a year in Canada.
Signs to look out for depend on how long the person has been exposed to cold temperatures: In the immediate aftermath, symptoms of hypothermia may include shivering, fatigue, loss of coordination and confusion, according to the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)
Someone suffering with later symptoms of hypothermia won’t shiver. Instead, they may have visibly blue skin, dilated pupils, a slowed pulse and breathing, and experience loss of consciousness.
NIOSH recommends taking the following steps to treat a worker with hypothermia:
- Alert a supervisor and request medical assistance.
- Move the victim into a warm room or shelter.
- Remove their wet clothing.
- Warm the center of their body—chest, neck, head, and groin—first using an electric blanket, if available; or use skin-to-skin contact under loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets.
- Provide warm beverages as they may help increase the body temperature, but do not give alcoholic beverages. Do not try to give beverages to an unconscious person.
- After their body temperature has increased, keep the individual dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including the head and neck.
- If no pulse can be detected, begin CPR.