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Risky business - February 2019

05 February 2019

With health and safety fines increasing due to the changes to the Sentencing Guidelines, Myles Frances looks at last year's top 10 fines and asks whether they are sufficient.

OVER THE recent festive period, I was catching up on a little light reading and came across a list of the ten largest health and safety fines from 2018. Reading the reports of each of the cases was a sobering experience and a reminder of why we do this health and safety stuff; behind each story there is an individual, a family, a workforce who are irrevocably changed. As I read, a number of seemingly disparate thoughts popped into my head, but on reflection they are all questions along the lines of “are we doing this right?”.

The first thing which I noted was a sense of satisfaction that the change to the Sentencing Guidelines in 2016 is actually resulting in a substantial increase to the fines being imposed for health and safety offences. This was always a bugbear of mine, particularly where large companies were being fined in the tens of thousands of pounds for serious incidents. Now we are seeing many more fines of £1m-plus for non-fatal incidents – something which would have been unheard of five or six years ago.

However, the biggest fine last year was £2.3m in connection with a bus accident which resulted in the death of a 7-year-old boy and a 76-year-old woman. A stiff penalty but is it truly sufficient? Does it truly reflect society’s disgust at the circumstances? Looked at from within the bubble of health and safety it does look powerful. But what about in the context of wider society? By way of comparison, last August the electricity supplier npower was fined £2.4m by Ofgem for failing to install smart meters by the Government imposed deadline. Ofgem had originally sought a penalty of £3.7m.

Does this mean that the deaths of two individuals in an entirely avoidable accident is seen as less serious than a company not installing electricity meters in time? Is that the sort of message being given here?

The circumstances of that particular accident underlined the second thing which jumped out at me: when are we going to start paying attention to warnings and previous incidents? As the oft-repeated quote says, those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In this case, the elderly bus driver had been involved in four crashes in the previous three years and warned about his “erratic” driving. And yet, the company still allowed him to work over 70 hour a week, in a role where he was responsible, directly and indirectly, for the safety of many others.

And that wasn’t the only one. Another case in the top 10 fines involved an employee being crushed to death by an overhead crane. The investigation found that the company had failed to enforce its own safety procedures despite having two previous incidents. Again, the red flags haven’t been acted on.

The final point was that the publication of the 2018 RIDDOR statistics showed that the previous long-term fall in fatal incidents has now plateaued over the past five or six years. One has to wonder how many of those deaths have come in incidents where warnings have gone unheeded? How many times has an employer done a cursory review of a risk assessment without considering all available information? And that’s not just information from within our own businesses, but the lessons we can glean from incidents reported in the media, by our trade bodies, or case studies by the regulators.

As health and safety professionals, let’s all take the opportunities we have to learn the lessons of incidents, and heed the warnings that are there in the near-miss and minor incidents. That should prompt us to check that we are doing things right and prevent the more serious cases which we read about.