For some reason, some people in business view the issue of health and safety breaches as among the lesser problems that can confront them. Which, for a number of reasons, is a huge mistake. And a potentially costly one.
A breach of health and safety regulations is a criminal offence. Any company or individual within such a company found to be in breach of them will face prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). This can mean a large fine for a company or an individual. An individual could also face the prospect of imprisonment.
Health and safety breaches often lead to fines in the tens of thousands of pounds. But where a breach is found to be due to a company or individual deliberately breaking the law or being seriously negligent regarding appropriate procedures that reduce the risk of injury, there is the possibility of unlimited fines and/or imprisonment.
HSE prosecutions, like any other prosecution, will see the size of the penalty vary from case to case; depending on the circumstances.
Health and Safety at Work Act 1974
The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSWA) outlines the obligations on companies and individuals regarding workplace safety. Section 2 states that “It shall be the duty of every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his / her employees.’’
Section 3 extends this employers’ obligation to the likes of contractors and visitors to the site, while other sections relate to the care and proper use of machinery, substances and premises. Section 7 imposes an obligation on employees to act responsibly regarding their safety and the safety of others.
Section 37 relates to offences committed by corporate bodies and where directors, managers, secretaries or other similar officers of the organisation have committed an offence.
The HSE states:
“If a health and safety offence is committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to any neglect on the part of, any director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the organisation, then that person (as well as the organisation) can be prosecuted under section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.”
This means, therefore, that if you are a senior figure in a company where there has been a health and safety breach, you may be the person that the HSE seeks to prosecute. The HSE will be looking to prove that the offence was the direct result of that person allowing it to happen, turning a blind eye to it or being ignorant or inattentive to the risk.
Further down this article, we outline the possible punishments for such a breach. For now, we will just say that such a situation is a hugely serious one. It can lead to a person facing huge legal, business and financial problems. If it is not handled correctly, everything a person worked so hard for could be at risk.
For that reason, expert legal help must be sought at the slightest hint of an investigation by the HSE or any other body. If you are not represented by a legal team that is well-versed in this area of law, experienced in dealing with the authorities in such investigations and capable of mounting a strong, proactive defence, your chances of achieving a favourable outcome will be limited.
This is the case whatever line of work you are in. Whether you work for an engineering firm, an NHS body or any other private or public organisation, the outcome can be serious if the problem is not managed appropriately.
Section 33 of HSWA creates 15 criminal offences regarding the Section 2 and Section 3 breaches over people’s safety.
The Sentencing Council’s guidelines on penalties for such offences recommend fines ranging from £50 to £10M. Such a huge range not only indicates the scope for variation between sentences: it also illustrates the potential to minimise the harshness of the penalty by building a shrewd, evidence-based defence to the allegations.
In its document, “Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences. Definitive Guideline’’, the Sentencing Council outlines that the highest penalties will be imposed when the defendant has:
- Failed to put in place recognised health and safety measures.
- Ignored concerns that had been raised.
- Failed to make necessary changes after a previous incident.
- Allowed a number of health and safety breaches over a period of time.
A more lenient approach will be taken if health and safety procedures were in place but were inadequate. The most lenient penalties will be imposed if a company or individual had made the necessary efforts to address the risk and / or there could have been no warning of the danger that only later became apparent.
The behaviour of the defendant is one of a number of factors considered when imposing a penalty. The degree of harm the defendant’s behaviour caused and the financial resources of the accused will also help determine the size of the fine.
There are also aggravating factors that could lead to a heavier penalty: Was cost cutting involved? Was illegal behaviour concealed or justice obstructed? Has there been fake documentation used or a failure to comply with licences? Does the accused already have a poor health and safety record?
However, a company or individual will be treated less severely if they can point to a previously blemish-free health and safety record, have self-reported the problem, voluntarily cooperated with the investigation or took steps to remedy the issue.
These factors, all outlined by the Sentencing Council, have to be seen as an attempt to make sure the punishment fits the crime. But a defence team has to view them as an opportunity to argue their client’s case point by point.
The approach to sentencing in health and safety cases gives a defence scope to emphasise the relevant positive aspects of what went on at a workplace. Use of expert witnesses, testimonials from colleagues or trading partners and evidence either overlooked or discarded by prosecutors can all enable a defence team to paint a fuller picture than that which is being created by the prosecutors.
But such action can only be most effective if the right legal help is brought in at the earliest possible stage.