New legislation will significantly increase the penalties available for health and safety offences. The Health and Safety Offences Act 2008 comes into force on Friday 16th January 2009 and will raise the maximum fines that can be imposed in the lower courts for breaches of health and safety regulations from £5,000 to £20,000.
The financial penalties in the upper courts remain unlimited. The range of offences for which employees, directors, managers and officers can be imprisoned has been broadened and this will become an option in both the lower and higher courts. At the moment, very few health and safety offences can result in imprisonment.
Robert Tailby, Loss Control Specialist at Chubb Insurance, comments: “It used to be a common scare story that you could get sent to prison for a wide range health and safety offences. In practice, custodial sentences could only be imposed in a few, very limited circumstances. However, what was an urban myth will become a reality next year.
“Take the example of someone larking around at work with a forklift truck and accidentally driving over a colleague’s leg shattering the bone and resulting in a long term disability. Whereas in the past the driver could only receive a fine, under the new rules he could be sent to prison.”
The recent Corporate Manslaughter legislation received a lot of attention but did not make it any more likely that directors and senior managers would be sent to prison following a workplace death. In contrast, under these new rules, individuals at any level in a company can be sent to prison if they take short-cuts with health and safety – even if no-one has actually died or been hurt.
Tailby concludes: “Businesses should check their health and safety policies and practices in the light of the new legislation. They should ensure that there are appropriate and robust mechanisms in place to keep people in their organisations healthy and safe at work, and to protect themselves and their management from both civil claims and criminal prosecutions arising from health and safety breaches. Companies should also check that they have adequate insurance cover for any related legal defence costs.”