Courts hit high and hard with new health and safety fines

A number of high-profile cases confirm courts are not holding back on imposing hard hitting fines to high turnover organisations, after tough new health and safety sentencing guidelines were introduced in 2016.

An employee of £1bn household retailer Wilko suffered severe spinal injuries and was left permanently paralysed after a roll cage containing 230kg of paint fell on top of her. The company pleaded guilty to four offences under the Health and Safety at Work Act, having accepted their risk mitigation measures and procedures had failed. Under the new, strict sentencing guidelines, the combination of a high turn over company, high culpability, and a serious level of harm to the employee, resulted in a £2.2m fine.

In a similar case, Merlin Entertainments was fined £5 million last year having admitted health and safety breaches caused the major incident on the Smiler ride at their Alton Towers theme park in 2015. A total of 16 people were injured, a number of which were considered life changing, including two teenagers requiring leg amputations.

Howell Jones employment rights expert, Jo Cullen explains: “The higher fines in such cases generally involve real human tragedy, where the new tariffs are intended to reflect the seriousness of the situation. As in these two examples, the fines are related to turnover, although the courts have discretion to push the fines up or down according to profitability. What is clear from the sentencing guidelines is that any fine must be sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact on the company to really emphasise the importance of health and safety.”

It’s important to have scrutinous health and safety systems and regulations, and to keep them regularly reviewed.  All members of staff, both workers and management, should be kept updated on policies in order to keep best practice at the forefront of their daily work. These processes will help to mitigate or support any defence against criminal liability or negligence as well as helping to avoid accidents from the start.

This article is intended to provide information of general interest about current and forthcoming legal issues, and is not considered legal advice.  At Howell Jones we can advise you on all aspects of company and employment law. For more information and guidance please contact Jo Cullen, Employment team leader.