Courts move towards higher tariffs on health and safety breaches.
Two high profile health and safety court rulings have caught the headlines this month, but the penalties imposed reflect the expected shift towards higher tariffs and businesses need to sit up and take notice say experts.
First, fashion retailer Hugo Boss UK Limited was fined £1.2 million with costs of nearly £47,000 following a prosecution relating to a fatal incident at one of the brand’s outlets in June 2013, when a small child died after a free-standing mirror fell on him.
Then, Oscar’s Wine Bar in South Yorkshire was fined £100,000 and ordered to pay £40,000 in costs after a barman gave a potentially lethal liquid nitrogen cocktail to a teenage girl, resulting in her having her stomach removed.
Under the existing 2010 sentencing guidelines, concerns have been expressed around the inexperience and inconsistency of magistrates and judges leading to fines being imposed that are too low relative to the harm caused, culpability and means. As a result, following recent consultation, it’s expected that the Sentencing Council will soon publish guidelines that take account of these factors.
Courts would first consider harm and culpability factors so as to categorise the seriousness of the offence. This would be put together with the financial standing of the company, with organisations banded from micro to large, to produce a predicted compensation figure.
These are both tragic cases, for which no amount of compensation could replace the loss of life or health, but the level of fine is much higher than generally seen in the past, and it seems that the courts are acting in the spirit and ethos of the expected new guidelines, even though nothing has been published yet.
Businesses need to sit up and take notice. No one wants to be responsible for such accidents, and the best way to avoid that is by making sure that health and safety systems are not just in place, but properly managed and regularly reviewed. Employees need to have safety at the forefront of their daily activities, and be aware of how it helps to protect both fellow workers and customers.
If the employee manual and employment contracts aren’t clear, then now is the time to review them. Having really robust health and safety policies, regularly reviewed and properly carried out in practice, will go a long way towards providing a defence against any criminal liability, and may provide a defence or at least mitigation against a negligence claim.