In February 2016, the UK government strengthened sentencing guidelines for health and safety breaches with the outcome being much stricter penalties. Nearly one year on from the introduction of these new guidelines, are you sure of your responsibilities for keeping people safe at work?
Beefed-up sentencing guidelines
UK law is relatively robust, leaving very few loopholes that allow poor safety practices to flourish. As a result, the government has strengthened the associated sentencing guidelines, making it even less attractive for employers to take risks with the wellbeing of workers and members of the public.
The new sentencing guidelines came into force in February 2016 and already they appear to be having some effect in terms of the severity of sentence being handed down by the courts to those found guilty of breaking the law. Since 1 February 2016, individuals found to have breached the law face a maximum allowable penalty of a potentially unlimited fine and two years in prison. The sentencing guidelines do provide a sliding scale of punishments based on the severity of the incident.
More lawbreakers face jail
Research suggests that the new, stiffer sentences coincide with a greater willingness to prosecute those found to have broken the law. One legal firm claims that health and safety prosecutions increased by 400 per cent between 2011 and 2014, for instance.
The rate of conviction has also accelerated, alarmingly so for any employer unsure of their health and safety provisions. Between 1974 and 2016, 189 individuals were sent to jail for offences. Since the new sentencing guidelines came into force, however, there have been an average of three people jailed every month – 23 between February and October last year. The jail terms handed down are quite significant, too. Incidents that would previously have been regarded as ‘low culpability’ have been attracting sentences of up to 26 weeks, although many of these have been suspended.
Employers need to tighten up
Of the 23 people sent to jail between February and October last year, 20 were employers or sole traders. Not only does this show that employers face very serious ramifications for failing to address health and safety issues, but that sole traders are not exempt from adhering to the Health and Safety Act.
Every individual has a responsibility to keep themselves, their colleagues/employees and members of the public safe as they go about their work. And these new sentences are clear evidence of just how seriously courts are taking health and safety.
Shifting boundaries and broader interpretations
Since the Health and Safety Act came into being back in 1974, individual directors have always been open to prosecution. Under Section 37, if the HSE can prove that a director deliberately connived in activities that then led to a serious accident, they face jail time.
Some lawyers suggest that the interpretation of neglect is changing. Under Section 37, the definition of ‘neglect’ used to require directors to knowingly encourage unsafe work practices. Recent cases suggest that directors are now being jailed for failing to undertake adequate risk assessments that could have helped protect employees from serious injury – or death.
Missing risk assessments could result in a jail term
Certain sections of the media treat risk assessments as an annoyance, and they’re used by some businesses as an excuse to reduce the quality of service they offer, or cut costs by withdrawing services. And in a few high-profile cases, there is evidence that some are doing just this. But the reality is that risk assessments are absolutely vital to protecting employees and proving that you are doing everything you can to reduce the risk of accidents on-site. Morally – and increasingly, legally – risk assessments are evidence that your business is doing everything possible to keep workers safe.
Obviously, many business owners are unaware of the new sentencing guidelines and the very serious implications attached to each. But they do know their responsibilities towards their employees, which have not changed in the 42 years since the Health and Safety Act came into force.
For more help and advice about getting your risk assessments in order (and to avoid a potential jail term), get in touch with Veritas Consulting.
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