When it comes to Health and Safety, for both ethical and legal reasons, there is really only one reasonable direction of travel and that is forwards, to better standards and better enforcement of those standards.
It’s crucial for businesses of all sizes to understand health and safety in the workplace, especially small businesses who may not be aware of the consequences, should health and safety requirements not be met. Here, Watson and Watson Safety explain the latest health and safety laws, fine and responsibilities that small businesses need to be aware of.
When it comes to health and safety within small businesses there are a few simple things that business owners can enforce to keep you away from fines (and at worst, a prison sentence) that could easily cripple a small business.
- Introduce and explain health and safety to your staff, especially if they are using office equipment or machinery daily.
- Converse with your staff on a regular basis to ensure they understand the benefits of health and safety, as it is in their own interest that they work in a safe environment, not just for themselves but for others around them.
- Don’t be afraid to check on employees to ensure they are following certain criteria and practices. This ensures they are not putting themselves, others or even the business in any danger.
With this in mind, it’s worth knowing exactly what’s changing in the world of health and safety, not only for yourself as a small business owner but for your employees too.
Fines are increasing
According to the latest data from the HSE (published in October 2018), which provides a “before-and-after” view of fines applied prior to and subsequent to the introduction of new health and safety sentencing guidelines in February 2016.
The “before” shot (2014/2015) indicated that the average fine was £29,000. The “after” shot (2017/2018) this had almost quintupled to £147,000.
Data further showed that it was far from unusual for companies to receive much higher fines with penalties of £500,000 and above being relatively common and the highest fine levied was £3 million.
Prison sentences become more likely
Over recent years, there has been growing recognition of the fact that fines do not necessarily act as a meaningful deterrent, particularly not when they are levied against a company rather than an individual.
As a result, legislators are becoming more open to the idea of making senior employees, such as company directors, personally liable for their company’s failings and, crucially, increasing the likelihood that they will be penalised by time in prison rather than a financial penalty.
For example, in November 2018, the government introduced new sentencing guidelines for manslaughter, including gross negligence manslaughter in connection with health and safety breaches.
These guidelines not only extend the range of negligence cases for which judges have the option to hand down prison sentences, but also extend the length of time those convicted can spend behind bars, in fact, the starting point triples from four years to twelve years and maximum sentences can be in the range of eighteen years to twenty years.
A key point to note here is that the most severe sentences will be reserved for those who have shown the highest degree of disregard for effective health and safety practices. While these principles obviously apply across the board, there are two areas in which companies might want to take particular care, namely the labelling of allergens and the protection of workers operating at heights.
Both of these issues have received significant publicity in recent times and it seems reasonable to assume that judges will expect companies to have learned from their mistakes.
Legal privilege may be called into question
A recent court case between the Director of the Serious Fraud Office and Eurasian Natural Resources Corp LTD & Law Society has raised a number of questions about the extent to which legal privilege may be applied.
This is a complex area, which companies may wish to research in further depth, however, in short, the Court of Appeal upheld that legal advice could be protected if it had been given in the context of preparing legal proceedings, even if these proceedings were later abandoned for a legitimate reason (e.g. settled out of court).
It did, however, allow for the disclosure of advice given to employees who were specifically tasked with liaising with lawyers.