Press release

Unscrupulous employers facing tougher health and safety penalties

Tougher penalties are being handed out to employers who breach serious health and safety laws following a change in approach to prosecutions.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

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Tougher penalties are being handed out to employers who breach serious health and safety laws following a change in approach to prosecutions, according to a new report released today.

Changes introduced under the Health and Safety Offences Act, have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, higher fines handed out to convicted offenders and more jail terms for unscrupulous employers who pay scant regard to the welfare of their staff or the public.

Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning said:

By handing greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison.

At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts.

Key findings of the report include:

  • a greater proportion of cases (86%) were heard in the lower courts after the Act came into force – that compares to 70% in the period leading up to its introduction
  • the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60%, from £4,577 to £7,310
  • for cases involving breaches of both health and safety regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) the average increase was 25%, from £13,334 to £16,730
  • 346 cases attracted fines of more than £5,000 – prior to the Act the maximum fine that could be imposed was capped at £5,000

The purpose of the Act was to increase the maximum penalties for workplace health and safety offences that could be heard in both the lower and higher courts. It was believed that if the penalties were increased it would provide a greater deterrent to would-be offenders.

The maximum fine that could be imposed by the lower courts increased four-fold from £5,000 to £20,000.

Magistrates and Sheriffs were also given greater powers to send an offender to prison. In the past custodial sentences were reserved for specific cases, but now someone can be sent to prison for the majority of offences.

And certain offences that in the past could only be tried in the lower courts, such as the failure to comply with an improvement order, were made triable in either court, meaning the offender could face a much tougher sentence if their case was referred to the Crown Court.

Read the full report here: Health and Safety Act 2008: Post-legislative scrutiny memorandum 16 January 2014

Case Study

Bakkavor Foods, of West Marsh Road, Spalding, Lincolnshire, was fined the maximum £20,000 and ordered to pay £12,484 in costs after admitting a breach of the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998.

The international food manufacturer ended up in court last October after an employee had the top of her middle finger sliced off.

The victim, Sushila Patel, was asked to pick up dough balls at a pizza factory in Harrow, which kept falling out of a faulty machine, when the horrifying accident struck.

A guard on the machine, which was normally locked, was wide open and at one stage she had to reach inside to pick up the fallen dough balls.

As she did this, her right middle finger became caught between a moving chain and a sprocket, badly slicing the tip.

The prosecution against Bakkavor was brought by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE found that a lockable guard on the machine had been left open, giving no protection to employees using the machine from coming into contact with dangerous moving parts.

After the hearing, HSE Inspector Charles Linfoot said:

Bakkavor Foods had a duty to ensure its employees were protected from the dangerous moving parts of the prover machine. The lack of control resulted in an employee suffering a painful and debilitating injury.

More information

The report reviews the first 5 years of the Act, which was passed in 2008 and took effect on January 16, 2009.

It was conducted by the HSE on behalf of the DWP.

The purpose of the Act was to raise the maximum penalties available to the courts for certain health and safety offences by altering the penalty framework set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act.

Lower courts refers to Magistrates in England and Wales and the Sheriff in Scotland.

The report analysed data taken between April 1, 2006 and January 15, 2009, and data between January 16, 2009 and March 31, 2013. Although the time periods were not comparable, the number of cases looked at was. It was these numbers that needed to be analysed.

Of the 1,748 cases before the Act, 1,227 were tried in the lower courts (70%) and 521 in the higher (30%). Of the 1,709 cases after the Act, 1,477 were tried in the lower courts (86%) and 232 in the higher (14%)

Average fines before the Act

  • Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) only, £10,908
  • Regulation only, £4,577
  • HSWA and regulation cases combined, £13,334

Average fines since the Act

  • HSWA only, £11,920
  • Regulation only, £7,310
  • HSWA and regulation cases combined, £16,730

Since the Act came into effect, 261 cases have attracted fines between £5,000 and £20,000, with 78 of these between £10,000 and £20,000.

In the period between April 1, 2006 and January 15, 2009, 4% of cases that went before the higher courts, and 1% that went before the lower led to a custodial sentence or equivalent, ie suspended sentence or community service.

Between January 16, 2009 and March 31, 2013 – after the Act had taken effect – 18% of cases that went before the higher courts (77), and 5% of those that went before the lower courts (144) led to a custodial sentence or equivalent.

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Published 16 January 2014