Health and Safety Worker

The Cost of Breaking Health and Safety Laws Just Went Up

It might seem like a fairly obvious objective for organisations, but ensuring the health and safety of employees pays off.

Health and Safety Worker

As of the 1st of February, Crown and Magistrates Courts in England and Wales are bound by tough new guidelines when sentencing offenders who have been convicted of breaking health and safety law.

For the first time, courts in England and Wales will be required to follow comprehensive sentencing guidelines. They will be required to take into consideration a new set of factors to determine the level of fines for offenders: the degree of harm caused, the culpability of the offender, and the turnover of the offending organisation.

The new legislation has been described as the biggest change in Health and Safety legislation since the introduction of the ‘Health and Safety at Work Act’ in 1974.

Increasing Fines

The changes will also result in increased fines for offenders, although not across all organisations and all prosecuted cases. Instead, fines will be proportionate to the size of the organisation and their financial means.

For large organisations with a turnover of £50 million or more, penalties for health and safety breaches could total in excess of £10 million, with companies found guilty of corporate manslaughter facing fines of upwards of £20 million.

Neal Stone, Policy and Standards Director at the British Safety Council, said: “We broadly welcome the new guidelines and in particular that in future that three factors will be key in determining fines for health and safety offences: the degree of harm caused, the culpability of the offender, and the turnover of the offending organisation.

“Having consulted our members we were able to say in response to the Sentencing Council’s proposals that there was overwhelming support for this change which would help ensure greater consistency in the sentencing practice of our courts and a level of fines that fit the crime.”

Long Overdue

Stone continued by stating that there was a consensus that the changes to the regulations were “long overdue”, particularly when in the past the fines that have been handed down have not matched the seriousness of the offence.

In the UK, the largest fine handed out for breaking existing health and safety legislation is £15 million, given to Transco in 2005, following an explosion in Larkhall, South Lanarkshire, which caused the deaths of four people. With these changes now in place, this fine may be exceeded in the near future.

Business have been urged to make changes to the way they deal with health and safety procedures, especially to those firms which have cut training budgets as a way of cutting costs. As a result of potentially larger fines, businesses can no longer rely on paying a small fine occasionally versus proper investment in H&S training.

Stone concluded, “The new guidelines, which will in some cases, result in far greater fines than courts are currently imposing, reflects a shift in not only public opinion but concerns among certain members of the judiciary, including Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice. As he has made clear in recent appeal court decisions the purpose of fines is to reduce criminal offences, reform and rehabilitate the offender and protect the public. 

“If the changes in sentencing practice do not help achieve these objectives – particularly ensuring compliance and discouraging law breaking – then they count for nothing. What we will need to see is clear evidence that the new guidelines have played their part in improving health and safety. Extra money through increased fines going into Treasury coffers should not be the name of the game. The objective must be to reduce the deficit of fatal and major injuries and occupational ill health.”