More big safety fines ahead, industry warned
The £2.6m fine imposed on Balfour Beatty last month for a fatal trench collapse signals a new era of multi-million-pound pay-outs for serious accidents, a leading safety adviser has predicted.
“We are seeing significant increases in fines – potentially a five to tenfold rise – under the new sentencing guidelines which came into force in February,” said Neal Stone, deputy chief executive at the British Safety Council, one of the UK’s largest safety advisory bodies.
Large contractors, defined by the Sentencing Council as firms with a turnover above £50m, can be fined up to £20m under the new guidelines. However, Stone pointed out that this is not a cap. “The wording says, ‘Where an offending organisation’s turnover or equivalent very greatly exceeds the threshold for large organisations, it may be necessary to move outside the suggested range to achieve a proportionate sentence’,” he said.
“So where deaths are involved, where there is a high degree of culpability, where it involves a large organisation, the fines could be much higher. I know of one leading QC who has publicly stated that a £100m fine is not inconceivable.”
Stone said that past fines had been “derisory” and that the British Safety Council’s 1,200 corporate construction members supported the change to the sentencing guidelines.
“Where deaths are involved, where there is a high degree of culpability, where it involves a large organisation, the fines could be much higher. I know of one leading QC who has publicly stated that a £100m fine is not inconceivable.”
Neal Stone, British Safety Council
The fine handed out to Balfour Beatty, one of the largest ever in the construction sector, followed a Health & Safety Executive (HSE) investigation into the death of a 32-year-old working under subcontract for the firm’s utility business on 14 April 2010.
It followed a £2m fine handed out to Travis Perkins after a customer was killed by a company vehicle at the builders merchants’ yard at Wolverton, Milton Keynes in November 2012.
The length of the time it took for both cases to come to court is another matter for concern, said Stone: “Justice is not served by such delays. Murder trials don’t take six years.”
Last November, trade union UCATT criticised the HSE for an eight-year investigation into a death on a south London demolition site, for which contractor 777 was fined £215,000.
The HSE said that “several complex investigations… meant average time taken between an incident and a prosecution has increased” in recent years, but that 80% of prosecutions were approved within three years.
HSE figures show there were 258 prosecution cases in 2014/15, 243 (94%) of which resulted in a guilty verdict for at least one offence. The resulting fines from these prosecutions totalled £3,976,000.