As the food and drink industry is highly dependent on market reputation and public trust, a corporate manslaughter conviction for a company within the sector could be devastating and could even put some SMEs out of business.

Each year over 5,000 injuries in the food and drink manufacturing industry are reported to the Health and Safety Executive which represents approximately 25 per cent of all reported manufacturing injuries. During the 12 year period between April 2000 and March 2012, 53 fatal injuries occurred in the food and drink manufacturing industry. The main causes of these fatalities were machinery/plant, workplace transport and falls from height with a smaller number resulting from confined spaces/asphyxiation, being struck by an object, animals and electrocution. It can often be a matter of luck whether an accident results in death or only a minor injury.

By way of reminder the new statutory offence of corporate manslaughter (which applies only to organisations), was created in April 2008 when the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 came into force. An organisation can be convicted of the offence if the way in which its activities are managed or organised causes death and amounts to a gross breach of a duty of care owed to the victim. Investigations therefore focus on systems of work adopted by organisations and the actions or inactions of “senior management”. Penalty on conviction is an unlimited fine with the recommendation that the starting point is £500,000. The courts can also order that information regarding the offence and the conviction itself be publicised widely. Such publicity can cause significant commercial damage.

Since the Act came into force only three convictions have occurred with none of the defendant companies coming from the food industry. However, with the above statistics it can only be a matter of time. The three convicted companies were all relatively small and in each case directors were personally involved in the day to day running, but the new offence remains to be properly tested against larger organisations. Despite the small number of convictions so far, in 2012 63 new investigations were commenced representing a 40 per cent increase over the previous year. A further 56 cases of possible corporate manslaughter are currently under review by the CPS. In addition during the last 4 years there have been in excess of 50 convictions of companies for lesser health and safety offences involving fatalities within the same period.

So, as the new criminal offence only relates to organisations, are you, the individual, safe? Definitely not! The existing offence of “gross negligence manslaughter” (with its maximum penalty of life imprisonment) is still available against individuals as are many of the lesser offences contained within the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

The only way to truly reduce your corporate and personal liability for workplace fatalities is to establish robust health and safety procedures and to keep them constantly under review, thereby minimising the risk of accidents occurring in the first place.