The recent sentencing of a company director from Buckfastleigh in Devon in relation to failing to ensure the health, safety and welfare of his company’s employees underlines the importance of compliance with health and safety legislation. It also serves as a reminder that individuals can also be prosecuted for health and safety failings.

What did the court decide?

Alwyn Thomas, director of Celtic Rock Services Limited (CRS), pled guilty to breaching section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, and received a suspended 12 week sentence and a 12 week curfew together with a requirement to pay his employees’ legal costs of £3,560.

What went wrong?

Both the director and CRS failed to prevent three company employees from developing hand arm vibration syndrome (HAVS).

The work conducted for CRS by the three employees included using heavy drilling and hammering machinery, often using the tools horizontally on cliff side sites.

Risk assessments completed by CRS failed to identify the level of exposure to the vibrations that led to HAVS and used data which was not up to date.

Although the first symptoms of HAVS were identified in 2000, it was only in 2016 that the HAVS problem was recognised by the company.

Employees were not informed about the risks of HAVS nor did CRS have a system to monitor the health of its employees until 2016, at which point HAVS was diagnosed among employees when an occupational nurse was employed by the company. At the point of identification, however, CRS failed to take action to prevent further harm.

What does the law say?

Section 37 of the 1974 Act states that if certain health and safety offences are committed by a company, then the director, manager, secretary or similar officer within that company may also be guilty of that offence, together with the company – if the officer consented or connived to the offence or if their negligence contributed to the offence’s occurrence.

CRS was found guilty of breaching their duty to ensure the health, safety and welfare at work of their employees under section 2(1) of the 1974, and fined £36,667 and costs of £3,560. The company director was consequentially found criminally liable for his part in this breach.

The prosecution of individuals alongside corporate health and safety prosecutions has grown rapidly in the last ten years. Although individual liability has long been examined in the most serious of cases it is now routine for the role and potential liability of individuals to be considered during investigations into workplace safety breaches.

What do you need to do?

  • Prepare thorough risk assessments and ensure they are regularly reviewed;
  • Undertake health surveillance to identify potential health and safety risks to workers;
  • Take suitable preventative action in relation to identified risks before they present as problems;
  • Ensure active senior management engagement in health and safety matters; and
  • Seek legal advice if you are unsure of the extent of your obligations.