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Improved health and safety sentencing guidelines begin to bite

New guidelines represent a 'sea change', lawyers warn corporate clients

1 February 2016

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Four fines of £1m or more have been imposed by the courts for health and safety breaches over a six-day period as new sentencing guidelines come into effect.

All the fines, which were handed down between 21 and 26 January 2016, followed guilty pleas from businesses and so, without credit having been applied, would have been higher still if they had been contested.

Today sees the biggest change in health and safety enforcement for over 40 years, since the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) came into force in 1974.

The new sentencing guideline for health and safety offences and corporate manslaughter sets out a nine-step codified approach tied to corporate turnover and, according to international law firm Kennedys, dramatically increases fines for companies and will lower the threshold of custody for offenders.

Danny McShee, a partner at the firm, explained that while fines of this level have been imposed in health and safety cases in the past, they have been few and far between and usually reserved for only the most serious of cases.

On 21 January C.RO Ports London Ltd, which operates a number of roll-on/roll-off terminals in the UK, the Netherlands, and Belgium, was fined £1.8m at Basildon Crown Court.

The company had entered a guilty plea to a single breach of section 2(1) of HSWA following an accident which led to an employee's arm becoming caught within a powered capstan. The employee's arm was dragged into the rotating drum, leading to multiple fractures and soft tissue damage.

Four days later, on 25 January, Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Ltd was fined £1m at Canterbury Crown Court after pleading guilty to breaches of section 2(1) and 3(1) HSWA. The prosecution followed an incident in October 2012 when a worker was hit and killed by a lorry mounted crane while undertaking repairs to a damaged central reservation.

On the same day, National Grid Gas plc received a fine of £1m at Sheffield Crown Court for a breach of section 3(1) HSWA following an incident in June 2014 in which an engineer became trapped between two gas pipes. The employee was trapped for an hour and suffered a broken femur.

The penalty brings the total fines imposed on National Grid in the last two months to £3m. In December 2015 it received a £2m fine at Preston Crown Court following the death of an 11-year-old boy who fell from a pipeline running across the Leeds and Liverpool Canal.

The latest £1m fine was imposed on 26 January on UK Power Networks (Operations) Ltd following the death of a runner who was electrocuted by a low-hanging high voltage power cable.

Chelmsford Crown Court heard that the company had been warned about the danger posed by the cable but instead of immediately 'de-energising' the area, the defendant dispatched a technician to the site. The fatal accident occurred 20 minutes before the technician arrived.

'The new H&S sentencing guidelines represent a sea change in health and safety law,' explained McShee. 'We anticipate that as the courts become familiar with the guidelines over the coming months, we will be increasingly advising corporate clients that they face a level of fine which, until very recently, would have been almost unfathomable.

'In the space of just six days in January 2016, four UK companies were sentenced to pay fines of £1m or more following convictions for offences under HSWA.

'It is notable that the sentences were all imposed prior to the introduction of the new guidelines, but clearly they were considered in anticipation of the guidelines, which take effect today.'

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Procedures Health & Safety Courts & Judiciary