The HSE’s ‘Definitive Guideline’ for health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene came into force on 1 February last year. A year on from the guideline's introduction, we consider the impact it has had in practice. Has it led to an increase in health and safety fines? And, ultimately, has it made works on site safer?

Rise in total value of health and safety fines

The short answer is 'yes', the total value of fines has significantly increased. According to Construction News, construction-related health and safety fines have rocketed by 89% since the guideline’s introduction. The total value of fines in the construction sector increased to £5.3 million in the six months following the guideline’s introduction, compared with £2.8 million for the same period in 2015, its sources reveal.

Some of the biggest fines in the industry have included Balfour Beatty’s £2.6 million fine last May following a worker’s death when a trench collapsed on an offshore wind farm in Lancashire. In November, Network Rail was fined £4 million after a pedestrian was killed at a level crossing in Suffolk. Outside of the industry, the highest fine reported to date is the £5 million levied against Alton Towers’ owners in relation to the tragic Smiler crash.

That fines are rising is probably not surprising given the guideline’s stated agenda for fines to be “sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to comply with health and safety legislation”. Indeed, fines can exceed £20 million for the very worst cases involving corporate manslaughter and can be potentially even more for the largest companies. This is because for the first time, fines may be directly linked to a corporate defendant’s turnover.

This presents a risk for medium sized firms and also larger contractors who have high turnovers but small profit margins. Balfour Beatty, for example, has set aside up to £25 million to cover potential health and safety fines, in spite of the fact that its latest half year accounts revealed that the whole group made a profit of £7 million during the first six months of last year.

Have there been improvements to health and safety?

Only time will tell if higher fines will actually lead to real change in industry attitudes to health and safety. However, the cases so far indicate that refusing to heed the guideline's message may well prove to be an expensive decision.