· 3 min read · Features

Corporate Manslaughter Act, three years on


No responsible organisation will deny the significance of the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

It is a key piece of legislation that businesses must adhere to, and as we approach the third anniversary of the Act, new sentencing guidelines remind us of the importance of doing everything possible to keep employees safe.

Guidelines introduced this year recommend convicted companies face fines starting from £500,000 and there is also an increased risk of conviction, with 13 situations that organisations may be prosecuted for, rather than two previously.

Meanwhile, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings' recent conviction serves as another reminder of the legislation's importance. The first company to be prosecuted under the legislation, it was fined £385,000 after being found to have failed to take all reasonable steps to protect employees. The company ignored industry advice prohibiting entry to pits over 1.2 metres deep and, at the time of his death, had left Alexander Wright unsupervised and alone.

The Act, which was brought in to deal with the most serious health and safety breaches, came into force on 6 April 2008. It introduced a new offence for prosecuting organisations when these failures have fatal consequences. To strengthen it, in January 2009 the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 also came into effect, creating the possibility of imprisonment for employees who contribute to health and safety offences.

Businesses as a whole, then, must understand the importance of these laws - and so must professionals responsible for health and safety within them. While many businesses do fully appreciate the critical nature of keeping staff safe, there are some instances where there is room for significant improvement.

The economic landscape has had a big impact on how businesses are implementing their policies. Financial cutbacks are sometimes leading to significant implications for health and safety.

One of the results of today's climate is the rise of lone or agile workers. Lone workers come in many different forms; they might be employees working alone from home, or workers performing a task on their own that is traditionally conducted by two people. While lone working can bring huge advantages to businesses and employees, often, organisations are not properly adapting their strategies to protect these staff.

It is vital that businesses frequently reassess their policies to make sure they are realistic for their new operating circumstances. Lone working does not automatically imply a higher risk, but working alone can increase employees' vulnerability. Many forward-thinking organisations are implementing systems (frequently technology-based) to monitor lone workers' safety, but it is crucial that these systems work practically: for example, if lone working staff have personal safety devices, they need to be charged and accessible at all times and, obviously, employees must be able to raise the alarm when needed. As well as ensuring systems work for the business, it is imperative that staff can use them properly. Any technology will only work if those using it are doing so properly, so staff should be properly trained. Staff should also be made aware of their responsibility to keep safe at work.

While staff have a responsibility to look after themselves in the workplace, businesses should not forget their obligations. Those with health and safety remits must be aware of the systems and policies in place throughout the business. If incidents happen, directors will be judged on what they knew - or what they ought to have known. A lack of awareness is not a valid reason for inadequate health and safety provisions.

Whatever line of business you operate in, it is important not to fall below a standard that is reasonably acceptable for your industry. So whether it is a bank or housing association, your business must ensure that its health and safety policies are in line with the industry standard.

The third anniversary of the Corporate Manslaughter Act, along with the first conviction under it, have brought health and safety to the forefront of many organisations' minds. However, they need to realise that changing economic and business environments mean it is extremely important to constantly review and update their approach to health and safety. Every business must consider the safety of every member of staff. Whether employees are in traditional offices or some of the growing breed of lone workers, their safety should be of paramount importance.

Jim Irving (pictured) is CEO of Guardian24, which provides technology to assist lone and remote workers