Warning for Employers over Tough New Health & Safety Sentencing Regime

Two recent prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have brought home the gravity of the reformed and far more stringent health and safety offence sentencing guidelines which were introduced in February 2016.

The new guidelines, applying to breaches of health and safety and food safety guidelines as well as corporate manslaughter, apply to incidents that occurred on or after 12 March 2015. Now, large companies in England and Wales will face fines of up to £10 million for the most serious breaches and magistrates' courts will be able to impose unlimited fines for offences, whereas before they could only levy fines of up to £20,000.

Laura Cameron of Pinsent Masons, a well-known law firm, says that the new regime should act as a stark warning to businesses that there is no margin for error or failure when it comes to meeting their duties under the regulations.

"Businesses have been sent a clear message that the regulatory authorities expect health and safety to remain a key corporate priority... If they are not already doing so, directors should be pushing health and safety issues to the top of their agenda," she said.

Recent Examples of Hefty Fines

In November 2016, an automotive manufacturing company that produces parts for the likes of Jaguar Land Rover and Audi was fined after it was reported to the HSE that six of its employees had sustained back injuries following repeated heavy lifting. Mahle Powertrain, the company in question, was fined a staggering £183,340 plus costs of £21,277.

In December 2016, an Ipswich Burger King franchise operated by KFG Quickserve was fined after a young employee was scalded by hot oil following several breaches of health and safety legislation. The resulting fine was £166,000 plus £12,000 costs.

Why Businesses Should Take Heed

The new guidelines for sentencing following health and safety and food safety breaches and corporate manslaughter require the courts to undertake an initial assessment of the overall seriousness of the breach in question. They will pose questions such as whether there was a risk of serious harm, regardless of whether such harm actually occurred. They will also look at the liability of the offender and will take into consideration what could have happened, as well as what actually did happen.

Fines will be based on a tiered system based on how serious the offence was; the business size and the turnover of the company. If there are any mitigating factors such as evidence of a clean health and safety record and measures having been taken to ensure the incident did not reoccur, then these will be considered. However, if the offender stood to gain financially or has a track record of similar offences then these will also be considered.

The new sentencing guidelines have clearly proved expensive for the two organisations mentioned. Business owners therefore need to think, can we afford to breach the rules?

The importance of site specific risk assessments and adherence to health and safety guidelines cannot be emphasised enough for businesses of any size. The fines being levied now could be devastating, so if you don't already have procedures in place to ensure a safe working environment for your staff, take those crucial steps today.

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