The Buncefi eld explosion on 11 December 2005 caused the largest fi re in peacetime Europe and led to the joint prosecution by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency (EA). Miraculously, there were no fatalities, but the explosion and its aftermath have had signifi cant and long-lasting effects on the environment. On 16 July 2010 several companies were found guilty of health and safety and environmental offences and were punished with fi nes totalling £5.35m, plus a further £4m awarded in prosecution costs.

The court relied on several key principles in its approach to sentencing: (1) the severest penalties should be reserved for major public disasters; (2) whilst there can be no direct correlation between the size of the penalty and the size of the company, the penalty should be substantial enough to serve as a deterrent; (3) the levels of fi nes and costs should not cripple the defendant and put employees out of work, but they should be suffi cient to demonstrate the public disapproval of the conduct; and (4) the more foreseeable the danger, the more serious the offence and the more severe the consequences.

Take note that aggravating factors which may increase the level of any sentence will include:

  • Breaches being systemic or widespread within an organisation  
  • Breaches occurring at a high level within an organisation  
  • Employing cost-cutting procedures at the expense of safety  
  • Failing to respond appropriately to near misses Punishment can be mitigated by:  
  • Accepting responsibility promptly  
  • Demonstrating a high level of co-operation with the investigation  
  • Having a good health and safety record  
  • Having a responsible attitude towards health and safety, eg demonstrated by commissioning expert advice, or the consultation of employees  

Total UK entered an early guilty plea and had shown genuine remorse. The judge therefore discounted its fi ne by 40%. BPA had an excellent safety record which had been recognised by many awards, and it had been entirely open and co-operative throughout the investigation. It had immediately carried out comprehensive remedial work and entered a guilty plea. Its fi ne was discounted by 50%.  

This case provides important lessons. Prevention will always be better than cure, but in the event of any breach, comprehensive steps to mitigate damage should be taken as soon as possible, whilst co-operating with the relevant regulatory bodies. The far-reaching ramifi cations of the Buncefi eld case, coupled with the fi nancial penalties handed down by the court, should serve as a stark warning to organisations to ensure strict compliance with health and safety laws.