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21st January 2014

Tougher penalties for breach of health and safety laws

Tougher penalties are being handed out to employers who breach health and safety laws following a change in approach to prosecutions, according to a recent report released by the Department for Work and Pensions.

The report shows that the changes introduced under the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, convicted offenders being given higher fines, and more custodial sentences being handed out to employers.

Minister of State for Health and Safety, Mike Penning said: “By handling 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.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60 per cent, from £4,577 to £7,310;
  • for cases involving breaches of both health and safety regulations and the HSWA 1974, the average increase was 25 per cent 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 special cases, but now someone can be sent to prison for the majority of offences.

Based on the above and the HSE’s Fee for Intervention scheme which has been in force since October 2012, it is clear that businesses who want to protect their position and minimise the risk of unplanned costs should speak to a health and safety consultant today, as the prevention is 500 per cent cheaper than the cure.

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