Safety Fines Soaring in Britain

The largest 20 fines imposed for health and safety offenses last year cost the businesses involved a total of $48.4 million, about three times more than the largest 20 fines in 2015 cost and eight times higher than in 2014.

The largest fines in Britain for health and safety incidents have increased significantly during the past year, with some of the biggest brands in business having to pay millions of pounds for failing to control serious risks to employees and the public, IOSH reported Jan. 27, with the organization also saying it hopes the possibility of larger penalties makes employers take more care to ensure workers are not harmed by their activities.

This, says the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, can also help businesses become more successful.

Last year there were 19 fines of £1 million or more in 2016 (equal to $1.25 million in U.S. dollars), and the largest fine of the year was £5 million ($6.27 million). During 2015, there were three fines of £1 million or more, and there were none in 2014.

The rise in fines is a result of the introduction of new sentencing guidelines for health and safety violations that took effect Feb. 1, 2016.

"Health and safety offenses can ruin lives, devastate families, and inhibit precious talent. Whilst you cannot put a value on human life, the level of fines now being handed out recognizes society's disapproval of serious corporate failures that lead to injury, illness, and death. It reflects a desire to deter others from making the same errors and takes significant steps forward in aligning penalties for these offenses with other regulatory breaches in the UK," said Shelley Frost, executive director of policy at IOSH. "Protecting employees and others affected by a business's operations will not only eliminate the risk of a large financial penalty, but can also be key to ensuring and maintaining an organization's strong reputation and ultimately contributing to its success."

IOSH, in association with law firm Osborne Clarke LLP's specialist health and safety legal team, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request exploring the impact of the new sentencing guidelines and shared the results Jan. 27. It showed the largest 20 fines imposed for health and safety offenses last year cost the businesses involved a total of £38.6 million ($48.4 million), about three times more than the largest 20 fines in 2015 cost (£13.5 million) and eight times higher than the £4.3 million they totaled the year before.

Some of the biggest 2016 fines didn't involve a worker fatality. The guidelines deem it is enough for a company's health and safety failings to have caused an injury or put people at substantial risk of injury or death, in order to warrant a large financial penalty. The £5 million was issued to Merlin Entertainments after five people were seriously hurt in a roller coaster crash at its Alton Towers theme park, and another large one, £1.6 million fine, was issued to Foodles Production after actor Harrison Ford suffered a broken leg and dislocated ankle while filming "Star Wars: the Force Awakens."

Mary Lawrence, a partner at Osborne Clarke LLP specializing in health and safety and an IOSH Council member, said the increase in fines being issued by UK courts "demonstrates a desire to drive the message home that ensuring health and safety within a working environment is fundamental. So while fines regularly exceeded the million-pound mark last year, we can expect to see even larger fines going forward. I see many businesses who focus on the safety and health of employees and others experiencing a broad range of benefits, including being better placed to attract and retain talent, scoring points in procurement processes for valuable contracts or even when seeking external investment."

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