· 2 min read · Features

The health and safety implications of the corporate manslaughter legislation

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With the current economic downturn resulting in steady reductions of staff, loss of skills and overworking, organisations should be more concerned than ever to avoid workplace accidents

Admittedly, workplace deaths have gradually been falling for the past decade, and in 2008-09 they were 22% lower than the average for the past five years. Yet, instead of appreciating safer work environments and looking to what more can be done to reduce the current levels of work-related illnesses and accidents, there has been an emphasis on a ‘compensation' culture.

Before the introduction in April 2008 of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, it proved very difficult to prosecute large organisations. The only successful prosecutions have being against small companies where the director and company are essentially one and the same. The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act seeks to address this difficulty by focusing on the way in which a company's activities are managed or organised, and it is not reliant on one individual being found guilty of gross negligence manslaughter. The courts are now able to consider the wider corporate picture, looking collectively at the actions, or more appropriately, the failings of the company's senior management. The Act has a clear message - directors and individuals with managerial responsibility need to ensure that health and safety risks are properly managed and resourced in the organisations they run.

The Sentencing Guidelines Council has started a consultation into corporate manslaughter penalties which, as announced last week, it believes should start at £500,000 and reach ‘many millions of pounds; for more serious cases. This represents a softening of the penalties, just 18 months after the new offence became law (it initially commanded that the fine be directly be linked with the firm's turnover or profit).

However, recent research conducted by the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) revealed that 59% of businesses regarded a publicity order (which the Sentencing Guidelines Council has said should be imposed in virtually all cases) as a greater threat than a fine of any sort. This is echoed within most industries except for manufacturing, engineering and utilities, and proves that most firms are more concerned by adverse publicity than a hefty fine. However, the survey also revealed that 57% of businesses are unaware they could be subject to a publicity order if found guilty of a fatal accident at work. Sectors that were most aware of the changes were travel and transport (53%) and retail, catering and leisure (47%), but those least knowledgeable were manufacturing, engineering, utilities and healthcare (35%). This research highlights the lack of awareness, in most businesses, of the effect that an accident at work may have on a firm's ability to trade in the future.

The issue of awareness of the implications of the Corporate Manslaughter Act is particularly important for multinational firms that have to contend with differing legal frameworks across national borders. There has been a strong increase in demand for health and safety qualifications from overseas firms in recent years, with interest from sectors such as construction and tourism particularly pronounced. Over the past year, the CIEH has seen that demand for internationally recognised health and safety qualifications has risen in the United Arab Emirates, where employment is growing at more than 8% annually. This increase in awareness of health and safety in the Middle East demonstrates there is real opportunity in emerging markets to educate businesses on the importance of health and safety before the industry itself becomes too mature and less likely to embrace change.

There is an increasing need for businesses to act proportionately when it comes to training their staff in health and safety issues in the workplace. The financial costs resulting from poorly trained staff, and the accidents that can follow, are far greater than the costs involved in investing in recognised qualifications. It is essential to ensure that all staff are aware of their personal responsibility when it comes to health and safety, especially since the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

Des Hancox is director at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health