Today marks the introduction of the new sentencing Guideline for health and safety offences, the most significant development in health and safety law for over 40 years. The Guideline is likely to dramatically increase fines for companies and will lower the threshold for custody for individuals.

In the space of only six days at the end of January 2016 four UK companies were sentenced to pay fines of £1 million or more following convictions for offences under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 (HSWA). It is notable that the sentences were all imposed prior to the introduction of the new Guideline, but clearly they were considered in anticipation of it coming into force today.

Implications

Whilst fines of £1 million and above have been imposed in health and safety cases previously, they have been few and far between and, in the past, have been reserved for only the most serious of cases. For example, fines over £1 million have been imposed in relation to multi-fatality train crashes including Ladbroke Grove, Hatfield and Potters Bar (Network Rail, formerly Railtrack), the Buncefield explosion and fire (Total UK) and for exposing hundreds of thousands of employees and members of the public to asbestos for a protracted period of time (Marks and Spencer plc).

Never before have so many fines at this level been imposed in health and safety cases in such a short space of time. The cases we have highlighted below represent the start of a shift towards significantly higher fines being imposed more regularly for breaches of health and safety legislation, and in cases at the lower end of the seriousness scale. The introduction of the new Guideline represents a sea change in health and safety law. We anticipate that as the courts become familiar with the Guideline 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.

Recent fines

  • 21 January 2016: C.RO Ports London Ltd, which operates a number of roll-on/roll-off terminals in the UK, the Netherlands and Belgium, was fined £1.8 million by Basildon Crown Court. The company had entered a guilty plea to a single breach of section 2(1) HSWA following an accident which led to an employee’s arm becoming caught within a powered capstan (a rotating machine with a vertical axel which is used to apply force to ropes). As a result the employee’s arm was dragged into the rotating drum, leading to multiple fractures and soft tissue damage. Following its investigation into the incident, the Health and Safety Executive alleged that the company had failed to act on previous concerns raised by workers at the port in relation to the operation.
  • 25 January 2016: National Grid Gas plc received a fine of £1 million 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 engineer had been part of a team which was attempting to fix a leak when pressure, caused by escaping gas, burst a pipeline. He was trapped for an hour by the pipe and suffered a broken femur. The prosecution told Sheffield Crown Court that the company had failed to carry out suitable and sufficient risk assessments and had not followed its own gas escape procedures. The penalty brings the total safety fines imposed on National Grid in the last two months to £3 million. On 8 December 2015 it received a £2 million 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.
  • 25 January 2016: Balfour Beatty Civil Engineering Ltd, a subsidiary of Balfour Beatty plc, was fined £1 million by 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 whilst undertaking repairs to a damaged central reservation.
  • 26 January 2016: the latest £1 million fine was imposed 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, which pleaded guilty to a breach of section 3(1) HSWA, had been warned by members of the public about the danger posed by the cable. Instead of immediately ‘de-energising’ the area, UK Power Networks chose to dispatch a technician to the site. The fatal accident occurred 20 minutes before the technician arrived.