The government’s continuing commitment to improving workplace safety has led to the imposition of new sentencing guidelines for any business found guilty of breach health and safety law.
Last week we discussed the Sentencing Council’s recommendations for corporate manslaughter convictions – this time we take a look at the individual penalties that may be handed down for breaching the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
What is involved?
Most businesses should have a basic understanding of the Health and Safety at Work Act; they are essentially expected to make all reasonable provisions to keep workers and the general public safe from accident and injury.
Consequently breaches of the Act that cause an employee or member of the public to be injured could be a criminal offence. The Health and Safety Executive may choose to prosecute the business and individuals involved if the offence meets certain criteria.
What are the new punishments?
The maximum allowable penalty for a breach is an unlimited fine and two years in prison for the guilty parties. However the Sentencing Council has recommended a sliding scale of penalties that adjusts according to the severity of the offence – at the bottom of the scale, offenders may receive a conditional discharge.
How does the sentencing work?
When a guilty verdict is handed down, the judge presiding over the case must determine the level of culpability, and the degree of harm caused.
If the guilty party has shown a flagrant disregard for the law and the safety of their employees, the degree of culpability is rated as very high. If the offender has taken significant efforts to protect workers, and the failings were relatively minor, the degree of culpability will be deemed low.
The judge must then consider the serious of the harm caused. Did someone die or suffer a serious life-changing injury as a result of an action that was predictably dangerous? If yes, this would indicate a high degree of risk of harm.
On the other hand, if injury was much less serious, and was caused as a result of a low-risk action, the harm weighting for sentence determination will be lower.
Fines, sentencing and the impact on your business
As part of the pre-sentencing process, your business will be asked to supply the court with financial details. These records are then used to determine a fine that your business can afford to pay.
The judge will also use the risk of harm and culpability tests to determine whether a custodial sentence is applicable. Where possible, judges are instructed to avoid custodial sentences, but if the offence is suitably serious, you could be looking at doing jail time – up to 2 years behind bars for the very worst offences.
At the other end of the scale, you may receive a conditional discharge (which requires you to further improve health and safety provisions) and a Band A fine, calculated somewhere between 25% and 75% of your weekly wage.
Time for a review
Your business should already have a programme of rolling health and safety reviews in place, looking to constantly improve provisions wherever possible. And with these new sentencing guidelines in action, there has never been a better time to start.
Contact Veritas Consulting today for further help and advice on making your business a safer place to work – and to avoid falling foul of the courts