Following the tragic accident at the Didcot A Power Station, after a building collapsed leaving one person dead, five people injured and three missing, the process of investigation is underway and it will be many months before all the facts will emerge.

Although safety standards in the construction industry have improved greatly in recent years, there is no room for complacency. According to RosPA, construction workers are still four times more likely to be killed in accidents at work than people working in other industries. Following an event such as a building collapse causing a death, the Health and Safety Executive will lead a detailed investigation to establish not only the facts of the accident on the day but also the context in which it occurred. This will involve a wide ranging examination of the safety and compliance records not only of the power station owners, who have primary responsibility for the site, but also their contractors and sub contractors, in addition to a detailed forensic examination of the site. There will also be an inquest into the cause of death of anyone who was killed, although the full hearing may not take place until the investigation is concluded.

It does not automatically follow that someone will be prosecuted as a result of the health and safety investigation. The law recognises implicitly that totally unpredictable events can occur, but where there have been breaches of regulations or negligence leading to  death or injury, there are a range of charges that can be brought, and there are also likely to be civil claims for damages by the injured and dependents of the dead.

Penalties under the Health and Safety at Work Act have been greatly increased in recent years and, depending on the charges and the seriousness of the case, the court has warned that, in some cases a fine so big that it would put a company out of business would be in order. Where a death has occurred and, if the evidence supports it, in addition to a charge of corporate manslaughter, which may attract a very large fine, prosecutions against individuals for gross negligence manslaughter could result in prison sentences. 

Modern thinking on regulatory compliance is that compliance is much more than a nominal “tick box” exercise which does not involve serious thought about the real safety issues in a given situation. The aim of the current regime of rules and penalties is to encourage a “compliance culture” which is led by the management of the business in a pro-active way and permeates throughout the whole organisation. Evidence of a non-compliant culture presented to courts and tribunals dealing with prosecutions for breach of regulation is used not only to prove guilt but also to justify higher penalties. On the other hand, an organisation with a compliant culture which has done everything it reasonably can to ensure safety is less likely to be involved in an accident and more likely to avoid prosecution if the unforeseen event occurs.

This type of approach is not only applied in safety cases but is the central theme in other highly regulated areas such as the environment and financial services.

Julie Bond, a partner in the Oxford office of Penningtons Manches who specialises in regulatory and professional negligence cases, said: “Right now, the cause of the Didcot accident is unknown and we should avoid speculation about possible causes or whether anyone has been in breach of any law or regulation. But this dreadful event should give us all pause for thought about our own approaches to compliance, whatever industry we are in.”