The HSE's annual summary statistics have highlighted the true extent of rising health and safety fines.
Alarmingly, latest figures reveal that the average level of fine has increased 381% since sentencing guidelines were introduced, from £27,000 per conviction in 2014/15 to £130,000 per conviction.
Comparing periods before and after the guidelines came into force, the largest fine imposed has also risen from £525,000 to £3 million – an increase of 471%. What’s more, a total of 36 cases received fines of £500,000 or more in 2018/19 or more, compared to just five cases in 2014/15, demonstrating how six-figure fines are now becoming the norm.
This increasingly robust approach to enforcing health and safety law is reflected in these five recent cases, four of which saw multi-million-pound penalties handed out for health and safety breaches.
1. DHL office worker crushed by falling tyre stack
Parcel company DHL topped the highest fine list this month after an employee was fatally crushed when a toppled tyre stack fell through the roof of a portacabin office where he was working.
The court heard that no risk assessment had been put in place by DHL at the tyre warehouse, where there was a “focus on product movement rather than health and safety”. Three other office workers were also injured.
Council inspectors discovered DHL had allowed high and top-heavy stacking of tyres in metal containers, known as stillages, right next to the office. The dangerous practice was “common” and staff had never been told not to do it. DHL had taken over the site from another company a few months before the incident; however, it failed to conduct a health and safety audit that could have helped identify the poor practice.
Inspectors also found a lack of health and safety training. There were no floor markings to guide placement of the stillages and the company had relied on workers’ judgement and their ideas of safe practice. Inspectors said DHL had “fundamentally and systematically” failed to manage health and safety.
Prosecutors told the court that DHL had failed to carry out its own risk assessment and failed to discharge its health and safety duties. The prosecution said: “The risks of forming stacks of stillages are obvious and the company knew of previous topples. Past events showed this is a well-established risk and should have been factored into consideration. But when the stack toppled, possibly after being knocked as a second stack was being put next to it, the top two stillages, each of which weighed 578 kilos, fell through the office roof”.
It added: “An error is always possible and the potential for disaster from a small error of judgement is manifest if the stacks are too close. All four individuals in the office were at serious risk of losing their lives”.
The judge said the company “bore a high degree of culpability for these offences. There was a serious corporate failure to ensure that suitable assessments had been made prior to this incident”.
This is not the first time DHL has received a substantial financial penalty. In 2018, the company was fined £2 million after a worker was fatally crushed between a large goods lorry and loading bay wall. The logistics firm was also ordered to pay £266,000 in 2017 after an employee was crushed when a 770kg unstable load fell on him.
2. Steel company fined after workers killed in blast
A steel company was has been fined after two engineers were killed in a plant explosion following risk assessment failings. Five others were also injured in the giant blast.
HSE investigators found that a lack of safety procedures led to an accumulator exploding.
A flammable atmosphere developed within the accumulator as hydraulic lubrication oil was being drained from it. The flammable atmosphere was ignited by an electric heater within the accumulator. The heater would have switched off automatically were it not for an electrical failure.
The HSE concluded the incident was entirely preventable, saying that the company “failed to assess the risks of the maintenance work and identify suitable control measures to prevent an explosion”.
Prosecutors said workers should have received training to look out for faults with the system and assess the risks of operating the machinery.
The plant’s health and safety manager told inspectors that some steel workers had “little or no training” on risk assessments and that the company had not put in place steps to make sure workers carried them out. He commented: “It is my firm belief that engineering risk assessment was lacking due to individuals not thinking that risk assessment was part of their role. I also think that others did not feel qualified or confident enough to do a satisfactory assessment”.
Celsa Manufacturing Ltd admitted failing to make a suitable and sufficient assessment of risks under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. It was ordered to pay £1.8 million within six months, plus £145,771 in costs.
The company apologised for the shortcomings which contributed to the tragic event.
The company breached health and safety law on five occasions between 2005 and 2009, with one incident involving a fatality.
3. Recycling company’s conveyor belt incident
A waste recycling firm has received a hefty penalty after an employee lost part of his arm in a conveyor belt incident.
The conveyor had become blocked after waste wrapped around an axle. In trying to remove the waste, the line operator’s glove got dragged into an in-running nip between the belt and a powered roller.
An investigation by the HSE revealed the company had failed to prevent access to dangerous parts of the conveyor. The HSE said a trapped key interlocking system had “essentially been bypassed” allowing machinery to operate in automatic mode with workers still inside a safety enclosure.
Mid UK was fined £880,000 in 2017 after an agency worker died when dragged through a waste-sorting trommel and shredder. Two directors were handed suspended prison sentences.
4. Cement firm’s preventable factory fatality
A building products manufacturer has been convicted of safety failings after a factory worker suffered fatal injuries when struck by machinery.
The employee was repairing a conveyor, part of which ran under a brick centering machine. The machine had arms on a mast that pushed bricks together under hydraulic pressure to ready them for packaging. However, the machine was not isolated and part of the worker’s body interrupted a light beam path between a sensor’s emitter and reflector. This caused the machine’s lifting mast to activate and descend, striking the worker.
A HSE investigation found that the manufacturer had failed to make sure the centering machine was isolated before the maintenance work was carried out.
Cemex UK Ltd pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was £1 million, reduced from £1.5 million to reflect an early guilty plea.
Cemex UK has been prosecuted several times for health and safety breaches. It was fined £700,000 in 2016 following the death of a worker who fell from scaffolding. It was also fined in £60,000 in 2015 after a mechanical fitter was killed when a stone crusher, which lacked a lock off facility, moved and suffocated him. In 2013, the company was fined £35,000 after a worker broke both legs when struck by a 400kg metal track, and in 2011, it was ordered to pay £200,000 after a steam and dust explosion killed a factory worker.
5. Traffic marshall run over by reversing vehicle
A ferry operator has been prosecuted after an employee was struck by a van being reversed out of a docked vessel.
The pontoon traffic marshall was struck by a 3.5 tonne delivery van at a port terminal. The van was being reversed off the vessel onto the pontoon area by a port service operative.
HSE investigators found that the system of work was unsafe. There was no physical segregation of pedestrian operatives from moving vehicles when vessels were being unloaded, and the ferry operator had not adequately assessed the risks to pedestrians from moving vehicles and failed to put in place effective controls.
Stena Line Limited pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £400,000 and ordered to pay costs of £6,576.
The HSE commented that the risks to pedestrians from moving vehicles was an obvious one that should have been identified and controlled. It added that had Stena Line employed suitable control measures the life-changing injuries would have been avoided.
Experts at reducing risk
Financial penalties are intended to have real impact. Sentencing guidelines state that “the fine must be sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to comply with health and safety legislation”.
If you would like to take steps to proactively reduce risk across your organisation, Ellis Whittam’s fixed-fee Health & Safety support can help to reduce the threat of prosecution by c.50% and cut the cost of any fine imposed by more than 85%.
To discuss your needs and the value of personalised support from a dedicated Health & Safety specialist, call 0345 226 8393 or request a free consultation using the button below.