22 May 2015

Health and safety case round up: suspended sentences


Agriculture
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A dairy farm director has been sentenced to four months in prison, suspended for 12 months, and ordered to pay costs of £10,073 after the death of a worker crushed by a bull in 2012. The worker suffered catastrophic crush injuries including fractured vertebrae, a broken pelvis and ribs, a punctured lung and damage to internal organs after being rammed several times against a gate by the animal weighing around a tonne, and died in hospital 9 days later.

Betholt Ltd and its director, Mark Holt, admitted 2 breaches of health and safety legislation for failing to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the risks to the safety of employees from handling cattle and not putting safety measures in place. Betholt Ltd was fined £133,333 and ordered to pay costs of £19,421.

Waste and recycling

Two subcontractors have each been given prison sentences of eight months, suspended for 18 months, after a worker was crushed to death under part of a 33 tonne steel barge. The worker, who was helping the subcontractors to cut and dismantle two barges with oxy-acetylene torches, had cut through the outer skin of one barge's hull and moved inside the structure to cut through some supporting braces, when the side of the now unsupported barge collapsed on him.

The contractors, who were brothers, pleaded guilty to health and safety breaches including failing to ensure that the barge was adequately supported to prevent a possible collapse, and failing to properly assess or manage the work. They were also ordered to carry out 100 hours of unpaid work in the community, and to pay costs of £3,000 each. The company, European Metal Recycling Ltd, had already been fined £150,000 after the HSE identified serious flaws with the method of work being used to dismantle the barges.

Construction

A builder carrying out cleaning work on a warehouse roof for a toy distributor has been sentenced to 6 months in prison, suspended for 12 months, after the death of a fellow worker who fell 9 metres through a clear plastic panel onto a concrete floor. Halsall Toys arranged with the builder to clear debris which had been washing down the roof into gutters, causing them to overflow into the warehouse. The court found the builder guilty of breaching the Work at Height Regulations 2005 for failing to put in place measures to enable the work to be carried out safely: no preparation work or planning took place in advance, nor were harnesses or other safety equipment used.

The company, which had not carried out any checks to make sure that the builder was competent, pleaded guilty to a breach of health and safety law by failing to ensure the worker's safety, and was fined £200,000 and ordered to pay costs of £10,483.

What this means for you

Although until the last few years relatively few custodial sentences were imposed for breaches of health and safety legislation, the numbers are increasing dramatically. According to the Health and Safety Bulletin, of 124 individuals receiving immediate or suspended prison sentences for work-related health and safety offences since the coming into force of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (not including 47 custodial sentences for the common law offence of manslaughter over the same period), 37 were imposed during the 12 months to November 2014, and 26 in the previous year.

As shown by the recent Sentencing Council consultation on sentencing regulatory offences, an increase in custodial sentences could be a sign of an increasingly punitive approach by the courts towards health and safety breaches targeting not only companies but individuals within them. Alternatively, the sentences could be an indication that in the current financial climate individuals often do not have the means to pay a fine and are receiving custodial sentences instead.

Although a suspended sentence may seem like a soft option because the individual avoids spending time in prison, imposing one indicates that the court feels the offence is sufficiently serious to merit a custodial sentence, and any re-offending during the period of suspension results in the original sentence being triggered immediately. Like any criminal conviction, a suspended sentence can lead to restrictions on foreign travel such as to the USA under the Visa Waiver Program, and must also be declared when applying for insurance cover.

All of the cases above involved easily-avoidable breaches of health and safety law. In the face of a sterner approach to sentencing by the courts, companies and their employees need to be more aware than ever of their responsibilities to ensure a safe working environment.

Category: Article