New Year, new penalties | 06 January 09
NEW laws introduced later this month on accidents in the workplace could see company directors and managers ending up behind bars, a leading law firm has warned.
From 16 January, individuals convicted of a wide range of health and safety offences will be liable to be sent to prison for up to two years under a radical but little-heralded overhaul of health and safety legislation.
Lawyers at Ward Hadaway say that while changes to the law on corporate manslaughter earlier this year have been well publicised, the introduction of the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 has slipped by almost unnoticed.
However, while corporate manslaughter is likely to apply in only a handful of cases, a custodial sentence will be an option for most health and safety offences heard in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.
From January 16, individuals found guilty can be handed a jail term of up to 12 months by magistrates or up to two years by the Crown Court.
Even for lesser offences, companies could find themselves hit hard in the pocket since the maximum fine which magistrates can impose has been quadrupled from £5,000 to £20,000.
James Thompson, partner in the health and safety team at Ward Hadaway, said: “This is a major step-change in health and safety law and one which is likely to affect a whole raft of different businesses.
“This is a signal of intent from the Government and the Health and Safety Executive that they mean to get tough on companies which do not follow correct procedures and cause accidents as a result.
“Whilst it has been said that only the most serious offences which cause ‘public outrage’ will result in jail terms, the new legislation does leave it open to the courts to send someone to prison, not just in cases of fatal or serious accidents, but in almost any prosecutable accident or dangerous situation.”
As well as increasing the penalties open to the courts in the case of health and safety offences, the Health and Safety Executive is also embarking on a campaign to make workers more aware of issues in the workplace.
While the HSE has stressed that it wants to work in partnership with employers to improve safety at work in the UK, it has also reiterated its determination to investigating and enforcing offences.
Experts say the new sanctions will strengthen the HSE’s arm still further and are likely to lead to more in-depth investigations.
James Thompson said: “For all these reasons – as well as a company’s natural wish to protect its employees from harm – it is vital that businesses ensure their health and safety procedures are up to date and stringently observed.
“Not only this, they must also make sure that staff are aware of how the changes affect them since senior company figures can be prosecuted under the new law if the rules which they have laid down have not been communicated properly to employees or they have not done enough to ensure staff follow those rules.
“Getting the right advice to ensure companies keep the right side of the law will be even more important in 2009. After all, no-one would want to see the coming year from behind the bars of a cell.”
Ward Hadaway is holding two seminars later this month on how to deal with a major health and safety incident from the outset.
The event – titled A Morning from Hell – takes place at the firm’s offices on Newcastle’s Quayside on Thursday, January 29.
It is repeated at Ward Hadaway's Leeds office in Wellington street on Tuesday, February 3.
* For more details on this seminar and all Ward Hadaway events, please click here. For further information on how our health and safety team can help keep your company on the right side of the law, please click here.