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New Guidelines Bring Health and Safety Responsibilities Into Sharper Focus for Employers

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All responsible employers strive to ensure their staff and colleagues are safe at work, and robust Health and Safety regulations are enshrined in UK law. But accidents happen and when they do they can have a major impact upon the injured party and the employer.

In February this year, new sentencing guidelines for Health and Safety offences came into force which employers need to be aware of and which are designed to ensure that employers take their Health and Safety duties even more seriously and to penalise employers who do not do so.

These new guidelines, apply not only to Health and Safety offences but also to Food Safety and Corporate Manslaughter offences.

The Court now refers to a detailed checklist to determine what sentence ought to be handed down – resulting in a far more uniform and prescriptive approach.

Using prescribed sliding scales this checklist focuses upon the degree of culpability of the employer, the degree of actual harm caused, as well as the degree of potential harm that could be caused by any risk present in the workplace.

The guidelines also use a prescribed sliding scale when it comes to fining offenders.

Whilst turnover of the offender has historically been a factor taken into account when handed down sentence, it is now one of the primary factors that the Court considers when deciding the level of fine to impose. This is expected to have a major impact upon the value of fines levied and already some commentators have suggested that the likely level of fines will be “eye-watering”.

In practice most fines for offences not involving a fatality were determined by Magistrates with most fines falling within a bracket of between £5,000 to £15,000, particularly if the employer pleaded guilty at the first opportunity. Many employers would plead guilty at the earliest opportunity because it was commercially sensible to do so. The new guidelines may impact on this practive given that the starting point for such fines is considerably higher.

So – overall, the new guidelines send out a signal to employers that it should not be cheaper to offend.

The guidelines will be used to ascertain the harm, culpability, and level of fine or other legal sanction using an established sliding scale which takes into account company turnover.

There is little doubt that fines for offending firms will now be higher. It is likely too that companies involved in Health and Safety prosecutions may challenge the facts of the case relevant to sentencing resulting in “Newton” hearings.

The most important consequence of the new guidelines is that employers need to revisit their obligations and responsibilities and take any necessary measures to improve things if they need to.