Health and Safety Offenses Act Increases Punishments for Workplace Safety Violators

Changes to UK employment law have seen employers that breach health and safety law receive tougher penalties.

The changes have been introduced through the Health and Safety Offences Act 2008. These new rules have seen more breaches of workplace safety regulations being tried through the lower courts, convicted offenders receiving higher fines, and unscrupulous employers that are negligent towards their staff receiving jail sentences.

A report into the changes to UK employment law released by the Department for Work and Pensions found that before the Health and Safety Offences Act came into force, 70% of all relevant cases were heard in the lower courts, but this proportion rose to 86% after the Act was introduced. Prosecutions in lower courts are typically more efficient, faster and cheaper than those in Crown Courts, and nowadays, only the most serious breaches of health and safety laws are heard in Brown Courts.

The fines received by employers who breach health and safety regulations have also risen:

  • Before the Act came into force, the average fine imposed following breaches of health and safety regulations was £4,577, but this rose by 60% to reach £7,310 after the Act was implemented
  • Breaches of both the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and of health and safety regulations used to lead to average fines of £13,334, but this has now risen by 25% to reach £16,730
  • Overall, a total of 346 different cases since the Act was implemented have led to fines exceeding £5,000, which was the maximum permissible fine lower courts could levy before the Act was implemented. As a result of the Act, lower courts can now impose a maximum fine of £20,000.

The Act also gave Sheriffs and Magistrates greater powers to send violators of health and safety laws to prison, with jail sentences now possible for the majority of offences. Furthermore, failure to comply with Prohibition Order and other offenses can now be tried in Crown Courts and lower courts, rather than just the lower courts, which could lead to offenders facing far more serious sentences.

The increased sentences for violators of this area of UK employment law may seem welcome, but they might not have the positive effects on workplace safety that could be anticipated. The Institute of Employment Rights (IER) pointed out that the positive news came following Martin Temple’s Triennial Review of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which revealed government funding for the HSE fell by 33% in recent years, going from £239 million over 2009 to 2010 to reach just £161 million over 2012 to 2013. In the next two years, government funding for the HSE is set to be more than 40% lower than it was in 2009.

Accordingly, the IER said employers that undermine the health and safety of their workforce will not be punished. An HSE representative said during an IER event that the number of workplace inspections undertaken by the body has fallen by 33%. The IER said this means the courts will not become aware of workplace safety problems until there are deaths or injuries in the workplace.

Carol Smith works alongside personal injury solicitors Blackburn and health and safety representatives to drive down the number of injuries and accidents at work. She is also a keen student of UK employment law and keeps an eye on any UK law reviews so she can keep on top of any movements in the area.

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