According to Health & Safety Executive data the number of directors and senior managers prosecuted for Health & Safety offences has more than trebled in a year.
In the year to 31 March 2016, the HSE prosecuted 46 company directors and senior managers. This figure was up from 15 in the previous year. Interestingly, the number of employees prosecuted by the HSE in 2015-16 fell from 10 in the previous year to just one.
Almost all the prosecutions involved the injury or death of an employee.
Directors in the dock
It seems the HSE is increasingly targeting the most senior individuals in businesses rather than their employees despite the fact employees are often more at fault.
Of the 46 director/senior managers in the criminal court dock, 34 were found guilty and 12 given prison sentences. The HSE said the figures represented a five year high.
The regulator said “Prosecution of directors is intended to hold them to account for their safety failings. The HSE’s policy is to prosecute directors where we have evidence that they have breached the law and when it is in the public interest, for example, when the director/manager was personally responsible for matters relating to the offence.”
New sentencing guidelines
New sentencing guidelines introduced in February have made the penalty for breaking Health & Safety law much tougher.
Under new measures, the size of the fine largely depends on a company’s turnover/size. How blameworthy a company is and the harm caused is also considered.
The total value of fines in the six months since the guidelines were introduced rose by 43% from the same period in the previous year. During February to August 2016, fines totalled £20.6m compared to £14.4m in February to August 2015. The numbers may be even higher as the HSE data doesn’t include prosecutions brought by local authorities.
We recently reported a wave of eye-watering fines including:
- Theme park owners receiving the record fine to date of £5m for a rollercoaster crash
- Film producers fined £1.6m after the star thespian literally broke a leg
- Security company being fined £1.8m for not securing the risk of Legionnaires’ disease
- Care home and its ‘out-of–depth’ manager being fined £1.5m
- Manufacturer’s £1m fine after a worker was crushed by machinery
More boardroom less bored-room
Increasingly holding senior managers to account for the failings of their organisation and staff is making Health & Safety a much more serious boardroom issue.
While Health & Safety has been high on the agenda of board meetings for many years, it has not necessarily been given much weight in terms of time and effort. But with turnover-related Health & Safety fines now being so big, boardrooms will have to wake up and smell the coffee!
The biggest impact may be on “medium” sized companies with a turnover of £10-£50m as the fines could represent a huge slice of their turnover.
Stormy waters ahead
Nick Wilson, Director of Health & Safety Services at Ellis Whittam notes there has been something of a “sea-change” following the introduction of the new sentencing guidelines. He believes the tide has positively turned after decades of relatively settled and “humdrum” fines.
The worry for directors is that £1m plus fines for Health & Safety offences will become the norm. This means that serious breaches of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 will threaten your company’s very existence.
Contact Ellis Whittam to make sure you don’t find yourself in the dock!