Penalties for legal breaches in cases of serious incident management embracing corporate manslaughter provisions, are set to become even more strict, says Chris Green, partner in regulatory services at law firm Weightmans.
"An offence under section seven of the Health & Safety At Work Act (1974) isn't currently imprisonable, except where managers were grossly negligent and where death has occurred," says Green. "If the Health & Safety Offences bill passes into law on its final reading in the House of Lords, which is expected shortly, people could go to prison whether or not a death occurred just by failing to protect employees' safety."
"The Health & Safety Executive is also looking at director disqualification as a penalty, which is a huge sanction and very important to senior managers," Green adds.
Common errors made by firms held liable for serious accidents are failure to devise a response plan or assess and tackle risks in advance and failure to learn from mistakes. "Companies that think it's enough to put procedures in place and assume people will follow them are often most at risk," says Green. Training staff at all levels, possibly through mock incidents, is good preparation, he says. In addition, if senior managers take health and safety in the workplace seriously, this will encourage their employees to do the same. If all safeguards and training opportunities are taken, even individuals who suffer injury can be held accountable if there is no adequate explanation for their actions.
While not preventing prosecution, possible defences for companies dealing with serious incidents include showing that everything reasonably practicable was done to safeguard staff against injury. Authorities could also be more lenient where accidents could be shown not to be foreseeable. External agencies that conduct risk assessments and overlook something could sometimes be held liable and food manufacturers could claim costs back from them, says Green.