Three years on, what does the Corporate Manslaughter Act really mean for businesses?

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Jim Irving, CEO of Guardian24

Jim Irving, CEO of Guardian24, a provider of lone worker safety solutions, examines new vulnerabilities within businesses when it comes to the legislation and considers what else can be done to protect staff.

Having come into force on 6 April 2008, the Corporate Manslaughter Act is approaching its third anniversary this year, and with recent new sentencing guidelines recommending appropriate fines to start from £500,000 in the event of a conviction, companies both large and small are reminded of the significance of this key piece of legislation.

A reinforcement of this was the recent prosecution of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings Ltd, which resulted in the first conviction of a company under the new corporate manslaughter legislation. The Gloucestershire-based firm was fined £385,000. The prosecution suggested that the company had failed to take all reasonably practicable steps to protect the health and safety of its employees, notably ignoring well-recognised industry advice which prohibited entry to pits more than 1.2 metres deep. At the time of his death, the company had also left Alexander Wright unsupervised and alone on the site.

Focused on the most serious of health and safety breaches, three years ago the Corporate Manslaughter Act introduced a new offence for prosecuting organisations when these failures have fatal consequences. Alongside this Act, from 16 January 2009 the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 also came into effect. This strengthened the existing law, and created the possibility of imprisonment for any employees who might have contributed to a health and safety offence by their consent, connivance or neglect. Individual employees therefore can now be convicted and imprisoned under the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008, while the organisation as a whole can be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

Clearly, the Corporate Manslaughter Act is an incredibly important piece of legislation, not only for businesses themselves, but also for employees responsible for health and safety within them. The Corporate Manslaughter Act concerns organisations which have failed in their duty to look after their staff, and alongside it there are many other guidelines in place that organisations should also consider.

However three years after the Corporate Manslaughter Act came into force to deal with fatal health and safety failures, have businesses done all they can to protect their staff? Sadly, the answer is not always yes. Recent economic cutbacks are just one of the ways in which companies are compromising health and safety. As more businesses have been forced to make reductions in spend, this is probably one of the most significant implications in relation to health and safety legislation such as the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

One of the greatest issues that I see is the significant rise in number of ‘lone workers’ within organisations. There is no doubt that agile and lone working can bring enormous benefit to both businesses and employees alike, with advantages such as reduced overheads, more efficient use of time, increased flexibility, and the ability to cover a larger area. However, in many cases, organisations are not properly adapting to or implementing health and safety strategies to best protect staff working in these new conditions. While lone working itself does not automatically imply a higher risk of violence, it is generally understood that working alone can increase the vulnerability of employees.

Some specific examples of this new breed of lone worker include staff working on their own from home as a result of an office closure, or one person performing a task that two people might have carried out before cutbacks reduced team numbers. Frequently we are seeing that organisations may be jeopardising their health and safety systems due to cost-driven factors.

Businesses need to reassess how realistic their health and safety policies are, and ensure they are being followed given the different circumstances in which many organisations are now operating. For example if there is a safety system in place to monitor lone workers, those responsible must make sure that employees are able to raise the alarm in times of need. All systems should be checked to make sure they work practically if lone working staff have a safety device, it should be charged and carried at all times. After all, the technology is only useful if it is being used properly.

Reviewing policies frequently and ensuring their suitability and workability for the business is key to creating a safe working environment. Directors or those with a HR or health and safety remit should understand the systems in place and know what is happening across the business. If an incident happens and results in a trial, directors are judged on what they know or ought to have known or ‘directing mind’ which is the common law criteria that considers the size of the business and what directors are aware of. Out of sight, out of mind is not a valid reason for inadequate health and safety provisions, so those responsible must be aware of the systems in place and make improvements if needed.

As many businesses know a key priority is to communicate with staff the importance of a health and safety policy. Staff should be made aware of the responsibilities they have to look after themselves at work, and be properly trained in any systems in place. Keeping staff informed, up-to-date and trained is a key way to keep them safe and keep the business within the legislation it must adhere too.

In addition, it is also important that any business does not fall below the standard that is reasonably acceptable for its industry, and any specific requirements that go along with operating in that sector. Be it a healthcare provider or a housing association, any business must make sure that its policies and systems are up to a standard in line with its industry as a whole.

Sometimes we can forget that it is not just businesses that operate in what are perceived as more dangerous sectors that must regularly review their health and safety policy. It is important to remember that anyone from engineers and social workers to professionals attending meetings alone need to be protected. The Corporate Manslaughter Act has undoubtedly bought health and safety to the forefront of many organisations minds, however it should only be considered as one of the many guidelines put in place to protect workers. Whether employees are based in the traditional office, or some of the growing breed of flexible, agile or lone workers, organisations across all industries need to fulfil their obligations. Keeping in line with health and safety legislation will not only protect an organisation, but most importantly, keep its workers safe.

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