STEP Safely with SSG Part 1: Between a Risk and a Hard Place

STEP Safely with SSG Part 1: Between a Risk and a Hard Place

  • Date: Thursday 1st November 2007

A staggering 241 work-related fatalities occurred for the year 2006-07. An increase of 11% from the previous year and the highest annual number of fatalities in seven years. So are things ever likely to change or should we just accept that people are going to die at work! The success rate shown by the HSE in prosecuting safety related cases is high, suggesting that although human error is a contributory factor in many accidents, the failure of safety management systems is much more significant.

So, will improving safety management result in fewer fatalities? Current safety law legislates everything from risk assessment to the duty to wear personal protective equipment. Get it wrong and you may be contravening statutory law, fined or even imprisoned, and with the highly publicised ‘no win - no fee’ culture, rarely is an accident not followed by a claim.

Does this leave the employer between a rock and a hard place or is it simply time for them to act? Disasters such as the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise highlighted deficiencies in the manslaughter law covering work related deaths. In the public enquiry that ensued, the ‘disease of sloppiness’ and negligence was found to be endemic throughout the company.

Even so, no case of corporate manslaughter was proven. Public and professional opinion concurred that the current laws on manslaughter needed reforming to ensure that companies responsible for employee deaths received the proper justice. As a result the Law Commission made proposals for the reform of the involuntary manslaughter laws, notably ‘Corporate Manslaughter’.

Currently, a company can only be convicted if a court establishes a Director or Manager had a ‘controlling mind’ over the circumstances that led to a death. This controlling mind must be an individual who can be ‘identified as the embodiment of the company itself’; this person must be found guilty of manslaughter. Clearly, in large organisations this is difficult and as a result the majority of successful cases have been brought against small companies where directors have had a more ‘hands on’ approach to the day to day control of activities.

The Corporate Manslaughter Bill, which comes into force next year, will bridge the gap in culpability between small and large organizations. Company management must appreciate that the new offence is based on management system failure and not the ‘controlling mind’ concept; senior management decisions that lead to failure can be singular or collective. Corporate manslaughter is a serious criminal offence, not a regulatory offence as with health and safety, and as such will be subject to police investigation, crown prosecution and the imposition of high levels of fines.

The question to ask now is ‘how far do we go to meet safety standards and avoid prosecution for safety offences and corporate manslaughter’. The answer is simple. To ensure compliance with health and safety legislation an organisation must have a safety management system in place that is proportional to risk exposure.

Good safety management doesn’t have to be complex and doesn’t need to cost the earth. As in all other aspects of business, good planning and effective management will reap its own rewards. So, are you and your organization safeguarded?

This article was written by Dr. Michael Cash PhD (Cantab) CMIOSH AIEMA, Development Director with SSG Training and Consultancy.

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