Back in February we discussed the tough new sentencing guidelines for health and safety breaches which were introduced across England and Wales in February 2016.

The guidelines brought with them a significant change to the way larger companies are punished when found to have committed serious offences and introduced a new and much clearer process for the courts to follow in ascertaining the level of that punishment, which can now involve unlimited fines and prison sentences.

We highlighted how a Burger King franchise had been levied substantial fines of over £166,000 plus costs for a breach of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. We also reported previous to that how a company that manufactured parts for Jaguar Land Rover and Audi had been fined over £183,000 plus costs for a breach of the same regulations.

Both cases were examples of the new sentencing guidelines in action. Now, one year on from their introduction, we have been reading with interest a report compiled by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and law firm Osborne Clarke LLP who worked together to look into the impact of the guidelines.

The UK is Now Taking Notice of Health and Safety Breaches

The report starts by highlighting how last year the UK sat up and took notice as some of the most significant fines ever were imposed on companies committing health and safety breaches. In the executive summary, the authors of the report say that the recent judgements demonstrate that the UK is ready to ‘show its disapproval of serious corporate failures which lead to injury, illness and death, and a desire to deter such failures by other businesses’.

It seems, suggests the report, that the new guidelines are starting to provide a measure of the impact that corporate manslaughter and health and safety offences can have on people and the economy. The economic cost to the UK of workplace illness and injury is reported to have been £14.1 billion in 2016, and the fines now being issued are starting to reflect this cost. ‘While fines last year regularly exceeded the million-pound mark, we expect to see even larger fines in the future for businesses failing to meet their health and safety duties’, it states.

There is also a suggestion that the individuals responsible for regulatory breaches are coming under even greater scrutiny, and that under the new guidelines, courts are starting to issue substantial fines for companies that have exposed workers or others to serious health and safety risks, even in circumstances where an actual incident has not occurred.

Trends in Recent Fines

When the largest health and safety related fine to be handed out in 2016 was imposed upon Merlin Attractions Operations Limited, the entire country took notice. Following the Smiler crash at its Alton Towers theme park in which five people were seriously injured, the company was levied with a £5 million fine. Had the company not pleaded guilty, the fine would have been higher.

Following a Freedom of Information Act request by Osborne Clarke LLP, analysis of the data has highlighted the increase in fines during 2016. Nineteen companies were given fines of a million pounds or more compared to only three in 2015 and none in 2014.

What the New Guidelines Mean for Company Directors and Managers

The report states that the new guidelines make it increasingly likely that a director in breach of the regulations could go to prison, not only where a breach is intentional, but now also where there is a blatant disregard or a ‘blind-eye’ mentality.

Under the new guidelines, says the report, an individual defendant facing prosecution as ‘highly culpable’ and where it is alleged that there is an intentional or blatant disregard for the law will ‘almost certainly now face custodial sentences’, ranging from 26 weeks to two years.

How to Ensure Compliance

The report concludes with advice and guidance on how organisations can ensure they are compliant with health and safety legislation. It says that companies that focus on preventing accidents can avoid the new substantial fines and as a result, will ‘reap the rewards of a safer and more secure working environment, as well as enjoy greater productivity and a stronger reputation.’

It is also suggested that organisations should lead health and safety from the top, making sure an adequate governance structure is in place. There is also a suggestion for organisations to ensure the allocated ‘competent person’ does indeed possess the relevant competencies suitable for the individual business. Ensuring all health and safety risks are properly identified and assessed courtesy of written risk assessments and regular reviews is also highlighted as a key step, as are reviewing how risks and safe working procedures are operationally managed, and checking that procedures are being followed and risks managed.

Manual Handling Risks

With regard the manual and people handling side of health and safety, a major area in which as we mentioned significant fines have already been levied for breaches, companies absolutely must be looking to make sure their workforce is adequately trained in all aspects of any handling they are expected to undertake and that site-specific risk assessments are carried out and monitored as a fundamental part of the operational process.

Alistair Bromhead Ltd provides a variety of health and safety related and manual and people handling courses, all of which can be fully tailored to specific needs and working situations.

Serious levels of sentencing for health and safety breaches are now in force: that is a fact. Surely no business can fail to ignore the importance of installing systems, processes and training initiatives?

For more information on the range of courses on offer from Alistair Bromhead Ltd please browse the site or get in touch.