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Corporate manslaughter: Are we failing our staff? By Lucie Benson

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With the corporate manslaughter bill potentially being passed through parliament soon, organisations need to be aware of the proposed new laws and what that means for the safety and wellbeing of your employees. Lucie Benson looks into whether employers are doing enough and what you can do to promote a safe environment.


We all remember the Zeebrugge ferry disaster, when over 190 people died when it capsized in 1987. The Crown Prosecution Service charged P&O European Ferries with corporate manslaughter in 1989 and seven employees with manslaughter. The case eventually collapsed, but it set a precedent for corporate manslaughter being legally admissible in an English court.

Now, 20 years on, it is just as vital for employers to be fully aware of current health and safety legislation and what policies and procedures are in place in their organisation to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their staff.

Recent statistics released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that 124 workers died in the six months to the end of September last year, compared to 212 in all of 2005/06. In addition, it is looking likely that the corporate manslaughter bill could be passed through parliament soon, pending a House of Lords agreement to a Commons amendment, which means we could be moving a stage nearer to new legislation later this year.

Steffan Groch, a health and safety partner at law firm DWF says: “These latest figures [from the HSE] will increase public pressure for employers to be held accountable for deaths at work and for the government to speed up the passage of the corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide bill through parliament.”

Easier to prosecute

The new offence is designed to make it is easier to prosecute organisations when their gross negligence leads to death and it will be clearly linked to existing health and safety requirements.

“This new bill may not be all that we had hoped, but we do believe that it will deliver increased justice and accountability when deaths result from gross failures in large and medium sized organisations.”

David Bergman, executive director, Centre for Corporate Accountability

David Bergman, executive director of the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA), says that it is crucial that this bill becomes law. “The Labour government first promised this bill 10 years ago in October 1997,” he remarks. “The CCA, trade unions, and health and safety organisations have been campaigning throughout this period for a new corporate manslaughter offence. This new bill may not be all that we had hoped, but we do believe that it will deliver increased justice and accountability when deaths result from gross failures in large and medium sized organisations.”

Whether the bill becomes law or not, organisations still need to make sure they have effective policies and procedures in place to ensure they comply with health and safety regulations. So are organisations doing enough to protect their employees? What can they do to ensure more effective health and safety precautions? And what effect will the proposed new legislation have on organisations?

Stuart Mutch, field operations manager at Croner, says that current health and safety law is an effective piece of legislation, but unfortunately many employers do not have efficient systems in place at all. “In the UK, where there are 3.5 million operating companies, employing 29 million people, it is safe to say that a majority of those employers don’t have a lot in place, and they probably fear the threat of an employment tribunal more than they do going to court for an accident,” he remarks.

Health and safety policy

Mutch advises organisations to have a written management system in place. “Even if it is a basic safety policy, which sets up their commitment that they recognise and accept their responsibilities,” he says. “The policy needs to ensure, as far as possible, the health and safety welfare of their employees and other persons affected by what they do.”

In order to go about this, Mutch recommends companies look at suitable information, instruction, training and supervision. “This is where it can often fall down,” he comments. “Organisations must look at systems that work and then, having done a risk assessment, put together effective policies and procedures. If that was done, there would be more of a safety culture, and that is where we have got to get to.”

“Individuals who take on the responsibility of health and safety in any organisation must get everyone else to take it seriously. And that is employees as well as management.”

Michael Geeson, Darbys Solicitors

Continued risk assessment is key, says Michael Geeson, a lawyer at Darbys Solicitors and an expert on health and safety issues. “A good organisation will manage themselves properly by being able to assess risk as they go along,” he remarks. “So it is an ongoing process and probably big organisations are better at it than smaller ones because they have the financial capacity to be able to fund it. Every new process has to be risk assessed and if they don’t keep up to date with it then they can potentially commit an offence. My impression is that most companies, even smaller ones, will do that but not as extensively as they should do.”

Geeson also suggests that education and training is fundamental to ensuring reasonable precautions are put in place. “Every employee must know about risk,” he emphasises. “Invariably when you have accidents, it is often because people don’t appreciate the risks that they are taking or there are individuals who are not prone to listen. Individuals who take on the responsibility of health and safety in any organisation must get everyone else to take it seriously. And that is employees as well as management.”

Corporate manslaughter legislation

Geeson says that, if it becomes law, the initial effect of the legislation will be dramatic. “Companies of all sorts will be exposed to prosecution for deaths in the workplace much more than they are at present, simply because the whole corporate identity is available to be prosecuted. So there may be individual failings along the way, but the law won’t require the HSE or similar to actually identify controlling mind. They will just have to identify a management failure and can prosecute the company. So it will be easier to prosecute and individual decision making can’t be hidden behind the corporate veil.”

Geeson also warns that, if someone dies on the premises, this could ultimately lead to the closing down of the business. “The fines will be huge,” he comments. “It will be brought home in the initial stages and people will wake up to the fact that the whole business and their livelihoods will be at stake if these mistakes are made. Systems will have to be in place and be effective. If there is a significant breakdown of management systems, which ultimately cause someone’s death in the workplace, then it will potentially be catastrophic for that business.”

Mutch sums it up by urging employers to make health and safety part of their business culture. “Health and safety is a key player in corporate social responsibility, and that is what employers have got to grasp.”

Only time will tell whether the proposed new law will result in more successful prosecutions and ensure employers do enough to protect the wellbeing of their staff, but it certainly has the potential to be a wake-up call to all organisations.

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