Of the 17 cases which have been highlighted, nine of them involve fines of at least £1m. As recently as three years ago, fines of this magnitude were few and far between, so it is clear that the 2016 Sentencing Guidelines have had a huge impact. Under the Guidelines, when considering an appropriate penalty, Courts are directed to consider culpability, the seriousness of harm risked and the likelihood of harm, which are divided into a number of different levels (including company turnover) to reflect the scale within each category.
What is clear from these prosecutions is that it is no longer the case that a fatality needs to occur before a massive fine is invoked. According to the Sentencing Guidelines, actual harm isn’t even necessary – they are concerned with the seriousness of harm that has been ‘risked’, but where harm has occurred, this is used as an aggravating feature for sentencing purposes.
Another striking feature of the list of cases are the bosses who have been found personally liable and sent to prison for health and safety offences. This is a stark reminder of the potential consequences for individual dutyholders where they fall short of meeting their obligations. Whilst it is still true that it is more common for organisations to be punished, Courts can (and do) find individuals guilty of health and safety offences.
The cases vary considerably in nature, but it is apparent that in many of these incidents, safe working procedures were either non-existent or not implemented properly. Failing to maintain machinery or provide appropriate personal protective equipment are fundamental errors, but so too are the failures to consider the implications of working with hot liquids or moving vehicles. Risk assessments are a starting point, but must be more than an exercise in paperwork – they should be seen as a call to action for employers to do something before it’s too late. Employees need to be appropriately trained to help them recognise dangers and to increase their awareness of the precautions to be taken.
Andrew Regel CMIOSH, HSE Training Technical Lead
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