Pret-a-Manger has been fined £800,000 after a member of staff was trapped for more than two hours inside a walk-in freezer.
The staffer at the Pret at Victoria coach station feared she was going to die in the sub-zero temperatures during the incident on July 29, 2021.
Westminster magistrates court heard the woman, wearing jeans and a t-shirt, tried to block out cold air from a ventilator with a torn-up cardboard box of chocolate croissants while she was trapped in the freezer. However her hands were too cold to tear the box apart.
She tried to move around in the limited space to keep warm, but her breathing eventually became restricted and she lost sensation in her thighs and feet.
When eventually set free after around two and a half hours, the Pret worker was hospitalised with suspected hypothermia.
The sandwich chain pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a health and safety breach following a Westminster city council prosecution, and was handed an £800,000 fine with £23,667 costs and a £190 surcharge by District Judge Neeta Minhas.
The judge spared the company a compensation payout as civil proceedings over the incident are ongoing.
Councillor Aicha Less, deputy leader and cabinet member for communities, public protection and licensing at Westminster Council, 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.”
The council said the woman was rescued from the freezer by a colleague, and was “in a state of distress and believing she was going to die”.
A health and safety probe revealed the Pret store did not have a suitable risk assessment for employees working in temperature-controlled environments.
There had been a series of call-outs in the previous 19 months over defective or frozen push buttons.
And the court was also told of a previous incident in January 2020 when another worker became trapped in the walk-in freezer and was unable to open the door from the inside.
Pret pleaded guilty to failing to take reasonable care for the health and safety of its employees. It has been given a month to settle the legal bill.
A Pret A Manger spokesperson 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.”