The financial penalties for health and safety breaches are rising… and fast.
In the last couple of months, several organisations across a variety of sectors have been handed some pretty eye-watering fines for occurrences that could have been prevented had risk been adequately assessed and reasonable precautions put in place.
The following five cases act as cautionary tales for employers.
1. Oil firm gas blast
In May, Marathon Oil UK was fined more than one million pounds over a gas leak at its Brae Alpha offshore platform.
A Health and Safety Executive (HSE) investigation found that high-pressure pipework
catastrophically ruptured as a result of sea water corrosion over a lengthy period, causing almost instant release of two tonnes of methane gas. The corroded area had been hidden from view as the pipe was covered by cladding – a problem known as “Corrosion Under Insulation” (CUI).
The force of the blast caused significant damage. Fortunately, most of the platform’s 100 personnel were in the accommodation block and away from the source of the leak.
Investigators found that the company had failed to carry out suitable and sufficient inspection of the pipework. This would have allowed it to identify the CUI risk and prevent the blast happening.
Following updated guidance on managing CUI risk, Marathon Oil had had a backlog of inspections to complete and so introduced a system to rank risks by priority. However, the company accepted that there was a failure in ranking the risk posed by the corroded pipe as “low”.
The HSE said this led to workers being exposed to an unacceptable risk of serious personal injury or death from fire or explosion. It served an improvement notice requiring the company put in place an effective pipework inspection and maintenance regime.
Marathon Oil UK pleaded guilty to breaking the Offshore Installations (Prevention of Fire and Explosion Emergency Response) Regulations 1995 and the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
It was fined £1,168,000 – one of the largest ever fines in a case of this type.
The HSE commented: “This incident could have been prevented had suitable and sufficient measures been put in place. Hopefully this prosecution and the sentence will remind other employers that failure to fulfil their obligations can have potentially very serious consequences and that they will be held to account for their failings”.
2. Worker killed by reversing vehicle
A waste and recycling company has been fined after a site labourer was hit by a reversing JCB in a waste processing shed.
The front-loading shovel was loading waste into both a waste separation machine and parked haulage vehicle, when the worker was fatally struck.
An investigation by the HSE found:
- Evidence of “a lack of pedestrian and vehicle segregation”, meaning pedestrians and vehicles “could not circulate in a safe manner”.
- A traffic management plan had also not been considered for the safe movement of vehicles on site.
- A risk assessment had identified measures to reduce the risks from operating vehicles.
However, these controls “had not been fully implemented nor were they sufficient to manage the risk of collision between vehicles and pedestrians”.
The court heard that a high volume of waste in the shed meant it was tight for the loader to move around. To make matters worse, a machine had broken down and this had led to a build-up of waste.
The prosecution said conditions in the waste shed were “wholly incompatible with the safe movement of pedestrians and vehicles”. The wheeled loader itself was also badly maintained, thereby increasing the likelihood of an accident.
The company accepted that walkways were a reasonably practicable measure and that it had therefore failed to ensure the health and safety of employees.
Sanders Plant and Waste Management Limited pleaded guilty to breaking the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £500,000 with additional costs of £14,041. In reaching a verdict on sentencing, the judge took into account the fact the company had no previous convictions.
The HSE said: “A properly implemented transport risk assessment should have identified sufficient measures to segregate people and vehicles and provide safe facilities”.
There are more than 5,000 accidents involving workplace transport every year.
3. Resident swallows chlorine tablets
Care home operator HC-ONE Limited has received a substantial fine after a resident fatally mistook chlorine tablets for sweets.
The care home had taken delivery of a box of cleaning products. The unsealed box was left unattended in a corridor next to a storeroom for housekeeping staff to put away. It contained unwrapped chlorine tablets that looked like mints.
Staff found an elderly dementia-suffering resident close to where the cleaning products had been left. Distressed and in pain, the resident had “the remains of at least one tablet in his mouth”.
HSE investigators found that the company had failed to:
- Assess the risk posed by several chemical products – including the chlorine tablets;
- Put in place an adequate system of work to manage delivery of chemical products; and
- Review its chemical product delivery arrangements for two years.
The care home admitted to failing to adequately manage chemical product deliveries and to not having an appropriate review procedure.
It pleaded guilty to breaking the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and was fined £270,000 for failing to ensure the health and safety of its residents.
The HSE said: “This distressing incident confirms the need for anyone handling potentially harmful substances to be extra vigilant in ensuring that they are not left unattended in circumstances where vulnerable people in their care can gain access to them”.
It stressed: “Suitable procedures need to be put in place and then regularly checked to ensure that they are being followed by everyone, not just for the use of such substances but also for their delivery, storage and disposal”.
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4. Advertising hoarding collapse
The land and property arm of the Greater London Authority has been fined after an advertising hoarding collapsed onto a passer-by.
A family of four was hurrying along a pavement to shelter from a storm when the father was struck by the hoarding. He had to be hospitalised after suffering facial and skull injuries.
The trigger cause of the collapse was high winds catching a wooden hoarding that was
attached to a brick wall and pulling them both over. However, an investigation by the HSE discovered the underlying cause to be “serious failings in safety management”.
Investigators learned that GLA Land Property (GLAP) employed a company to manage the incident site. However, GLAP failed to oversee the contract properly and ensure the wall was being maintained. The court heard that the wall was weakened by a crack, which caused the hoarding to “act like a sail in strong winds, eventually leading to its collapse”.
GLA Land and Property Ltd pleaded guilty under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.
It was fined a total of £250,000 with costs of £14,653.
The HSE said: “A set of simple arrangements to inspect and maintain the wall would have picked up on the imminent danger to any passer-by. Instead, a whole family was traumatised by seeing the father sustaining serious injuries from being struck by hoarding as it collapsed. It was only a matter of luck that no one was killed”.
5. Care home fire
A care home operator has been fined after admitting fire safety failures following a devastating fire. The fire was found to have been caused by an electrical fault, which quickly spread to the roof.
At the time, 35 elderly residents were in the home; 30 were not independently mobile and five were over 100 years old.
During its response, Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) rescued 33 residents but two died as a result of the fire.
Newgrange of Cheshunt Ltd pleaded guilty to five charges of breaking fire safety legislation. Each offence involved an admission the company breached its duty under fire safety law and that the breaches put residents at risk of death or serious harm.
The company was fined £175,000 and must also pay prosecution costs.
In sentencing, the judge took into account the guilty plea and good previous health and safety record. However, he pointed out that there had been a “complete failure to consider or concentrate on resident safety as opposed to the safety of employees”.
HFRS’s Chief Fire Officer said: “This incident highlights the need for all business owners to ensure they fully comply with fire safety legislation. If enough competent staff had been present and properly trained to carry out long-established and recognised guidance on evacuations in a care home, I am sure that a full evacuation would have been started long before our arrival”.
He added: “Evacuation of a care home is a difficult task and needs to be properly considered and practised so that everyone can escape unharmed. We continue to advocate the fitting of sprinkler or other fire suppression systems, particularly to any building where the occupants suffer from mobility issues”.
Looking to reduce risk?
The average fine for breach of health and safety law in 2017/18 was £147,000, with total fines exceeding £72 million.
Owing to the quality of our advice, practical hands-on support and robust safety management systems, Ellis Whittam reduce the risk of prosecution by c.50% and the cost of any fine imposed by more than 85%.
Speak to us today about how support from a dedicated Health & Safety specialist will help to safeguard your business against financial and reputational risk. Call 0345 226 8393 or request a free consultation using the button below.