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New powers of imprisonment for health and safety breaches

23 October 2008

Proposed tougher penalties for breaches of health and safety legislation are set to become law. On 16 October 2008 the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 received Royal Assent and the new law will be introduced in January next year.

The new legislation introduces a power of imprisonment in both the lower and the higher courts, together with greater financial penalties in the magistrates court for a wider range of health and safety offences.

One of the most important impacts of the legislation is that a power of imprisonment will now be available in respect of the key offences targeted at individuals under Section 7 and Section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Section 7 requires all employees to take reasonable care for themselves and others in the way they conduct their work. Section 37 addresses the actions of directors, managers, secretaries and other similar officers of corporate bodies.

The new legislation is driven by a desire to make sentences for health and safety offences sufficient to deter those tempted to break the law. Despite some organisations raising concerns about the Acts implications, at the third reading debate, Work and Pensions Minister Lord McKenzie commented that "the Government considers the proposals in the Bill, including the widened scope for custodial sentences, are reasonable and proportionate".

Organisations are encouraged to review their current health and safety procedures and systems. A good knowledge of health and safety legislation and guidance which applies to operations conducted by the organisation is essential and systems should be in place to including the following:

  • Procedures in place to identify risks and processes in place to manage them
  • Reporting procedures on matters relating to health and safety
  • Systems for ensuring recommendations from serious untoward incidents are implemented
  • Systems for recruitment of competent staff, ongoing training and supervision

The new legislation follows hot on the heels of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. Whilst it remains to be seen how many breaches will result in custodial sentences, the extension of the power of imprisonment highlights the importance of organisations and individuals treating health and safety as an important part of their business.

Andrew Hopkin regularly provides training to senior management including the board of directors of both public and private sector organisations on the topic of health and safety and risk management.

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The content on this page is provided for the purposes of general interest and information. It contains only brief summaries of aspects of the subject matter and does not provide comprehensive statements of the law. It does not constitute legal advice and does not provide a substitute for it.

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