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8 June 2016 / by / in

New Sentencing Guidelines for Safety Breaches Start to Bite

New sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences came into force on 1 February 2016 (see https://www.sentencingcouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/HS-offences-definitive-guideline-FINAL-web1.pdf). The sentencing judge is now required to make a step by step assessment based on the degree of culpability, the level of harm or potential harm caused by the offence and the size of the defendant organisation by reference to its turnover (not profit). There are four categories of organisation: ‘micro’ (under £2m turnover), ‘small’ (£2m – 10m), ‘medium’ (£10m – £50m) and ‘large’ (£50m plus). 

A review of the fines imposed by the courts on companies last month demonstrates the significant impact the guidelines are having and that big organisations are now facing substantially higher fines for safety failings than in the past.

In early May, the builders’ retailer Travis Perkins was fined £2m and ordered to pay costs of £114,812.76 for two health and safety offences in relation to the death of a customer at its Milton Keynes store in 2012. While loading planks of wood onto the roof rack of his Land Rover, the customer fell backwards into the path of a company vehicle operating in the yard and was crushed. The judge said this “was an accident waiting to happen”.

A few days later, Balfour Beatty Utilities Solutions Limited was fined £2.6m and ordered to pay costs of £54,000. The company pleaded guilty to breaching section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, regulation 31 of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2007 and regulation 3 of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999.

The case related to an accident six years ago when a subcontractor’s employee was killed while working in a trench that collapsed. The incident was originally investigated by the police but handed over to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after it was satisfied the alleged failings did not amount to corporate manslaughter. Despite the lengthy delay in HSE bringing proceedings, the new guidelines still applied.

Frozen Food giant McCains were fined £800,000 for safety failings after an engineer nearly lost his arm when examining a conveyor belt of a factory machine in August 2014. It was found the machine did not have the correct guard fitted.

There was also a large fine for occupational health failings. Asset International Limited was fined a total of £200,000 after pleading guilty to offences under the Control of Vibration at Work Regulations 2005. The pipe manufacturing company uses vibrating tools in its operation. Between April 2014 and July 2015 there were seven cases of Hand Arm Vibration Syndrome (HAVS). HSE said that no sufficient risk assessment or health surveillance had been carried out.

And finally, on the last day of May 2016, global energy company ScottishPower was fined £1.75m for a breach of section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work ect Act 1974 after a worker was seriously scalded at a power station in Scotland in 2013. The plant controller was injured when he opened a faulty valve that emitted high temperature steam. HSE said that ScottishPower was aware of the defective valve but failed to repair or replace it.

All eyes will now be on the forthcoming sentencing at Stafford Crown Court of Merlin Attractions, the owner of Alton Towers. In April, the company admitted charges of health and safety breaches following the incident in June last year, extensively reported in the media, when one of the carriages of the Smiler rollercoaster crashed into a stationary carriage leaving five people seriously injured. At the hearing in the magistrates’ court the company was told that it “may be ordered to pay a very large fine”.

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