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Ignoring risk could lead to custodial sentences

11 December 2008

Company directors and managers who turn a blind eye to workplace risk management could face sentences of up to two years under new legislation, warns insurance broker Smart & Cook. The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 is designed to give courts the power to sentence individuals who breach health and safety laws.

Ignore risk management at you peril
Ignore risk management at you peril

The Act, one of the few Private Members’ Bills to pass into law, is designed to punish individual employees just as the 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act, introduced in April this year, targets guilty companies.

According to a recent publication by the Health and Safety Executive, predicted figures for reported injuries in the year 2007- 8 indicate that manufacturing is one of the most dangerous industries in the country, with 5,097 major injuries followed by construction and wholesale and retail with 3,764 and 3,429 respectively.

Under the new Act a breach of health and safety rules will not have to result in a death, unlike under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act.

Smart & Cook marketing director Peter Castle commented: “The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act has been hugely influential in encouraging organisations to introduce comprehensive risk management strategies. The Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 has been introduced amid concerns among MPs that existing punishments for individuals who knowingly breach health and safety laws are too low.”

The Act extends the current £20,000 maximum Magistrates’ Court fine to cover a wider range of health and safety offences for which fleet managers, directors and decision-makers could be prosecuted. Penalties include up to two years in prison.

"The Bill was the latest of several attempts since 2000 to increase health and safety penalties,” Castle added. “At the moment there are very few health and safety offences that result in an individual going to prison. A director or manager would have to be charged with gross negligence manslaughter, where the sentence would typically be 18-24 months. This is all set to change and companies need to prepare themselves.”

Crucially, a death does not have to occur to invoke the act. Prosecutors will only have to prove a breach of health and safety and the range of sentences open to courts will be significantly increased. Penalties for gross negligence manslaughter will become harsher under the legislation and prison will become an option that has not existed before in most cases. The Act raises the maximum fine which may be imposed by the lower courts to £20,000 for most offences.

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