I was recently asked by a colleague whether there was any evidence that the Sentencing Guidelines for health & safety offences, which came into effect in February 2016, were actually having an effect.
I replied that they were, and pointed to a couple of recent sentencing decisions to reinforce my point.
However, since that discussion the evidence is becoming even clearer, and now there can be no doubt that sentences for health & safety breaches are getting heavier. This is such an important point for managers to consider that I think it's worth revisiting the topic in a bit more detail.
Let's begin with the case of Baldwins Crane Hire who were sentenced in December 2015 following a fatal accident. In this case the brakes on a 130-tonne mobile crane (maintained by Baldwins) failed due to poor maintenance, the vehicle crashed and the driver was killed.
When sentence was passed the Guidelines had yet to take effect so Baldwins were sentenced under the "old" system. They were fined £700,000 for corporate manslaughter.
Let's contrast the Baldwins case with a couple of recent sentencing decisions. It's important to note that, unlike Baldwins, neither of these cases involved the charge of corporate manslaughter but instead involved breaches of health & safety legislation.
First we have the case of engineering company Parker Hannifin Manufacturing Ltd. An employee was engaged in moving heavy machinery within the factory when the machinery overturned and fatally crushed him. It was found by the HSE that the task had not been properly planned and so the company were prosecuted for failing to have a proper risk assessment and for failing in their duty of care to the employee (but, let us be clear, they were not prosecuted for corporate manslaughter).
Parker Hannifin Manufacturing Ltd were fined £1 million for these safety offences.
Now let us turn to the case of Merlin Attractions Operations Ltd, the operators of the Smiler ride at Alton Towers.
On 2nd June 2015 a car on the ride collided at speed with an empty carriage which had stopped on the track. Engineers had overridden the safety systems in the mistaken belief that there was a computer error. There were numerous casualties, and two victims had legs amputated as a result of their injuries. However, thankfully there were no fatalities.
The company had pleaded guilty to health & safety failures at a previous hearing, and accordingly was fined £5 million for what the Judge described as a "catastrophic failure" in their health & safety management systems. The Judge also indicated that had they not pleaded guilty but instead had been convicted following a “not guilty” plea and a trial then the penalty would have been a fine in the order of £7.5 million.
So, the picture is clear: within months we've gone from a £700,000 fine for corporate manslaughter to a fine of £5 million for an accident which caused serious injuries but didn't actually cause fatalities (although it could easily have done so).
Health & safety fines are going up, and of that there can be no doubt. Hence any manager who still thinks that health & safety is some sort of optional extra, or (worse) is willing to treat fines for breaching health & safety simply as a business overhead is riding for an extremely unpleasant fall.
About the Author
Andy has his own health & safety practice, Management & Safety Training Ltd, and is a highly experienced consultant and trainer (including accreditation with NEBOSH both as a tutor and examiner). He is an accredited accident investigator and is qualified in both the health & safety and training sectors.
A Fellow of the International Institute of Risk and Safety Management (FIIRSM), a chartered safety & health practitioner (CMIOSH) and a member of the UK Occupational Safety & Health Consultants Register (OSHCR), he has a proven track record in fields as diverse as accident investigation, lone worker safety, construction safety, and health & safety training.
Prior to moving into the field of health & safety management he was a specialist investigator with two élite UK law enforcement agencies (including taking responsibility for the management of complex international fraud enquiries).