The unit within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) responsible for complex cases in England and Wales brought 52 prosecutions in the year to April 2015, up from 24 three years previously, according to the figures. Cerico, which is part-owned by Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, also found that HSE had doubled its use of 'publicity orders', requiring businesses to publish details of penalties ordered against them, over the past year.
Rosie Garrigan, a consultant at Cerico, said that the potential for reputational damage as a result of breaches of health and safety law was a “significant boardroom concern” to many businesses. The figures showed that the HSE was becoming “more assertive” despite significant budget cuts over the same period, she said.
“The problem for so many corporates is that they do want to be compliant, but particularly for large organisations with huge workforces and outsourced services, that can be incredibly hard,” she said. “Embedding compliance culture is a real challenge, and we're increasingly seeing many turn to technology to help bring compliance to life.”
“The first step in building a compliance culture is having the right policies and procedures in place. The second is embedding them. Technology has a huge role to play in that as it helps give management visibility over workforce engagement with company policies,” she said.
A breach of health and safety law is a criminal offence, for which a business can be prosecuted and fined. Fines between £100,000 and £500,000 are becoming increasingly common in cases where the breach causes a fatality, although larger companies can expect to pay more than £1 million. Company directors or secretaries, managers or other similar officers, found guilty of “consent or connivance” in relation to a breach, or if the breach is attributable to their neglect, face unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to two years.
New sentencing guidelines for health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences are expected to come into force next year, following confirmation by the Sentencing Council. Draft guidelines consulted on last year propose significant fines for companies even when no actual harm results from the breach, and the introduction of a new 'turnover test' in determining the appropriate level of any fine.
Regulatory law expert Laura Cameron of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the figures obtained by Cerico showed that the potential impact of the new guidelines could be significant.
“These numbers indicate that the enforcement authorities will have no hesitation in pursuing the most serious cases,” she said.
“Under the new guidance, that could result in fines of up to £20m. The turnover of parent companies may also be considered in that calculation. Corporates now face a race against time to get their compliance processes in order,” she said.
Figures released by the HSE this week showed that an estimated 27.3 million working days were lost to work-related ill health or injury in 2014/15, with an estimated cost to business of around £14.3 billion. An estimated 1.2 million people, 516,000 of which were new cases, suffered from a work-related illness over the same period, while there were 142 deaths and 611,000 workplace injuries.