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Continued Rise in Fines for Companies in Breach of Health and Safety

 

What is considered safe practice in all industries is a fluid construct and subject to continual re-evaluation. On top of this, new guidelines for sentencing for courts that deal with corporate manslaughter, food safety and health and safety offences were recently updated and published, manifesting in much higher fines for all cases sentenced after 1st February 2016. This obviously makes uneasy reading for Human Resources professionals responsible for compliance in health and safety across the gamut of industries in the UK. It could be especially damaging for small and medium sized companies who don’t have specialized health and safety departments and bosses should be aware of the consequences of any future prosecutions and fines. These new guidelines highlight the absolute importance of being compliant and up to date with all legal obligations for training.

Obviously, because of the generalized nature of the guidelines’ implications there are countless potential ramifications, but here are some of the key instance in which a company might become open to tougher sanctions including very nasty fines:

·       A lack of hygiene causing an outbreak of food poisoning at a food processing factory

·       Failing to care for residents of a care home to appropriate standards

·       Failure to carry out proper risk assessments on site, resulting in an employee suffering an injury

As anyone in the construction trade should know, the danger of asbestos remains very real – in fact deaths from mesothelioma remain on the rise and just four days prior to writing these very words, on 15th July 2016, General Motors UK, the company behind Vauxhall Motors, was fined £120,000 as a result of its contractors disturbing asbestos during work. This particular incident happened in Cheshire at the Ellesmere Port facility. It was during work to replace high pressure hot water boilers that the contractor found Asbestos Insulating Boards under the cladding on the building’s exterior. On the day of the discovery, the asbestos register which would have allowed the contractor to check the boards out was not on hand. When the location of the new pipework was changed to the side of the building no review of the risk assessment for the job, specifically in relation to asbestos, was undertaken. Subsequent sampling confirmed the presence of asbestos. General Motors gave no instructions to the contractor to stop the work to prevent disturbance of potentially fatal AIBs. The work, including the removal and cutting of holes in the boards, continued without suitable precautions. General Motors UK Ltd, pleaded guilty to a single breach of Section 3 (1) the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and was fined £120,000 and ordered to pay £11,779 in prosecution costs, highlighting just how severe these penalties can be, as well as the importance of risk assessment at all stages of every job, especially when plans change.

This outcome came only months after a condiments producer (Mizkan Euro – who count Branston Pickle among their brands) and its building contractor were ordered to pay fines and costs over £180,000 after asbestos was disturbed during demolition work. The asbestos was only identified by chance when a licensed removal contractor came to the site, showing again the lack of adequate planning and risk assessment and the severity of the consequences.

Clearly these fines are small change for the likes of GM, but smaller companies could go under if faced with similar penalties, while under the new guidelines corporate manslaughter convictions could attract fines between £4,800,000 and £20,000,000 (larger for larger companies). In order to calculate the fine, under the new guidelines, especially for severe cases like corporate manslaughter the stated intention is to have a “real economic impact” and turnover rather than profit is used as the measuring stick. What is clear is that SMEs across the land will have to make sure their health and safety, training and risk assessment protocols are watertight.