Jim Irving examines new vulnerabilities within businesses when it comes to the legislation and considers how else to best protect staff.
As the Corporate Manslaughter Act came into force on 6 April 2008, and with recent new sentencing guidelines recommending appropriate fines to start from £500,000 in the event of a conviction, all companies are reminded of the significance of this key piece of health and safety legislation.
Focused on the most serious of health and safety breaches, the Act introduced a new offence for prosecuting organisations when these failures have fatal consequences. Alongside it, from 16 January 2009 the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 also came into effect to strengthen the existing law, and create the possibility of imprisonment for any employees who might have contributed to a health and safety offence by their consent, connivance or neglect. Individual employees therefore can be convicted and imprisoned under the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008, while the organisation as a whole can be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter Act.
Recently, the trial of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, resulted in the first conviction of a company under the new corporate manslaughter legislation. Following the death of engineer Alexander Wright while he was working in a pit that collapsed, the Gloucestershire-based firm was fined £385,000, as it was found to have seriously failed in its obligations to keep its workforce safe. The company ignored industry advice which prohibited entry to pits over 1.2 metres deep, and at the time of his death, had left Mr Wright unsupervised and alone.
Three years on, and in light of the recent prosecution, have businesses done all they can to protect their staff? Sadly, the answer is not always yes.
Recent economic cutbacks are just one of the ways in which companies are compromising health and safety. As more businesses have been forced to make reductions in spend, this is probably one of the most significant implications in relation to health and safety legislation.
The rise of ‘lone workers’ is a key issue. This new breed of employee can include those working alone from home due to office closure, or one person performing a task that two people might have done previously. Lone working can bring huge benefits to businesses and employees, however, some organisations are frequently not properly adapting or implementing strategies to protect these staff.
Businesses need to reassess how realistic their health and safety policies are, and ensure they are being followed given the different circumstances many organisations are now operating in. For example if there are safety systems to monitor lone workers, it’s important that employees can to raise the alarm when needed. Systems should be checked to make sure they work practically – if lone workers have a safety device, it should be charged and carried at all times. After all, the technology is only useful if it is being used properly.
The key to creating a safe working environment is reviewing policies frequently and ensuring their suitability and workability for the business. Directors or those with a HR or health and safety remit should understand the systems in place across the business. If an incident happens and results in a trial, directors are judged on what they know or ought to have known – or ‘directing mind’ which is the common law criteria that considers the size of the business and what directors are aware of. Those responsible must be aware of the systems in place and make improvements if needed.
The importance of a health and safety policy is a key priority in many businesses and this should be communicated with staff. Staff should be made aware of the responsibilities they have to look after themselves at work, and be properly trained in any systems in place.
In addition, businesses must consider any specific requirements that go along with operating in their sector so as to not fall below the standard that is reasonably acceptable for that industry. Be it a healthcare provider or a housing association, any business must make sure that its policies and systems are up to a standard in line with its industry as a whole.
The Corporate Manslaughter Act has bought health and safety to the forefront of many organisations minds, however it should only be considered as one of the many guidelines put in place to protect workers. Organisations across all industries need to execute their obligations, whether employees are based in the traditional office, or some of the growing breed of lone workers. Keeping in line with health and safety legislation will not only protect an organisation, but most importantly, keep its workers safe.
Jim Irving is CEO of Guardian24, a leading provider of lone worker safety solutions.