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Tougher penalties for health and safety breaches

A new approach to health and safety prosecutions has meant that employers who commit serious breaches of health and safety are now receiving much tougher penalties, according to a recent Government report.

Impact of Health and Safety Offences Act

The report covers the five years following the introduction of the Health and Safety Offences Act in 2009, which increased the maximum penalties the courts could impose for certain health and safety offences as a deterrent for would-be offenders.

In particular, the Act:

  • Increased the maximum fine the lower courts could impose from £5,000 to £20,000.
  • Gave Magistrates and Sheriffs greater powers to sentence an offender to a prison term. Previously, custodial sentences were reserved for specific cases, but now they can be imposed for the majority of offences.
  • Enabled certain offences that in the past could only be tried in the lower courts, such as the failure to comply with an improvement order, to be triable in either court. This means that an offender will face a much tougher sentence if their case is referred to a higher court.

Sending a message to employers

The report found that, since the introduction of the Act, more cases are being tried in the lower courts, convicted offenders are received higher fines and employers who neglect the safety of their workers are receiving more jail terms for serious health and safety breaches.

“By handing greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison,” commented Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning.

“At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts,” he added.

Report findings

In particular the report found that:

  • 86% of cases were heard in the lower courts after the Act came into force – that compares to 70% in the period leading up to its introduction,
  • the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60%, from £4,577 to £7,310,
  • for cases involving breaches of both health and safety regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) the average increase was 25%, from £13,334 to £16,730, and
  • 346 cases attracted fines of more than £5,000 – prior to the Act the maximum fine that could be imposed was capped at £5,000.

The report was welcomed by Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals.

“We welcome the Government’s review of the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 and the Minister’s message that rogue employers who gamble with workers’ health and safety will face stiff penalties,” commented IOSH head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones.

“It’s important for the unscrupulous to know that average fines for breaches of health and safety regulations have increased by 60% and for those also involving the Health and Safety at Work Act, by 25%,” he added.

Fatal accident at work

The need for tougher penalties to act as a deterrent for reckless employers is clearly demonstrated in the cases reported regularly by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), where employees have suffered life changing injuries, or even lost their lives, as a result of their employer’s negligence.

A recent example of this occurred when a teenage apprentice was killed after being crushed by a heavy piece of machinery while working for a marine engineering firm.

He was working to reassemble a 970kg tunnel thruster from a ship when it fell off the working bench and landed on his torso and left leg, causing fatal crush injuries.

The HSE investigated the incident and found that although the company was aware that the tunnel thruster – a gearbox and propeller used to manoeuvre a ship – was only notionally stable, it didn’t do enough to ensure it was safe for employees to work on it.

The firm was fined £75,000 and ordered to pay £47,936.57 in costs after pleading guilty to breaching Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

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