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first corporate manslaughter conviction

18 February 2011
Cotswold GEO Technical Holdings were yesterday fined £385,000 following the companys conviction under the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. The company were prosecuted following the death of Alex Wright in 2008 who suffocated when a trench collapsed on top of him whilst he was working within it.

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service stated that, in convicting the company, the jury had found that the system of work for digging such trenches was unnecessarily dangerous. The company had ignored industry guidance regarding excavations. It is understood that the fine must be paid over a 10 year period at rate of £38,500 a year. This will have a huge impact on a company whose turnover in the year of the fatality was reportedly only £333,000.

Guidance in relation to fines in corporate manslaughter and fatal health and safety cases was issued in February 2010. It makes clear that, where breaches of health and safety law are shown to have caused death, the appropriate fine will seldom be less than £100,000 and may be measured in hundreds of thousands of pounds or more. The offence of corporate manslaughter will involve a level of seriousness significantly greater than a health and safety offence. The appropriate fine will seldom be less than £500,000 and may be measured in millions of pounds.

What can a company do to ensure its health and safety management systems are effective?

  • consider HSE guidance that is available including HSG65 that sets out how organisations can put in place good health and safety management systems
  • ensure that health and safety is in focus at the very top of the organisation. The HSE guidance - Leading Health and Safety at Work - Leadership actions for Directors and Board Members - sets out the steps a board needs to consider in managing health and safety
  • ensure that competent people are advising the company in connection with health and safety, whether these be internally trained staff or external consultants
  • ensure that any health and safety management system is kept under effective review
  • ensure effective systems are in place for the recruitment of staff and their subsequent induction, training and supervision
  • engender a positive attitude and culture within the company in respect of health and safety

Tragically, despite the best efforts of organisations to manage health and safety effectively, fatal accidents will continue to occur in the workplace. In such circumstances, companies need to ensure that they are ready to deal with the intense criminal investigation that will follow immediately after the death and for many months, if not years, thereafter.

Following a fatal accident, the police will lead the investigation supported by the Health and Safety Executive with both having significant powers to demand documentation and information from individuals during their enquiries.

Organisations need to be in a position to effectively manage that investigation and, in order to do so, should have in place written guidance and a plan which will assist senior management in the event of an incident. Such guidance does not need to be lengthy or complex but should outline the way in which a company aims to manage the investigation and should include:

  • information about the framework of such an investigation
  • the key powers of the police and Health and Safety Executive
  • how any internal investigation on the part of the company might be conducted
  • how best to support employees at all levels within the company through what will be a stressful and challenging time.

If you would like any advice or assistance in connection with the preparation of such a plan, written guidance for your company or any other matters related to health and safety law, please get in touch.

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