Highest recent health and safety fines, including record-breaking £6.5m penalty

Written on 31 August 2021

We recently learned that a total of 142 workers were killed at work in Great Britain in 2020/21. This brings the five-year average to 136 worker deaths per year. 

But behind these figures are individual fatalities, failings and of course fines. Each of these cautionary tales drive home the worst possible outcome that can occur in the workplace and reiterate the importance of proactive, preventative health and safety practices.

Here are just some of the high-level fines imposed for health and safety failings this summer, including a record-breaking seven-figure penalty.

Logistics firm fined £6.5m after allowing public access to dangerous site

Believed to be the largest health and safety fine in two decades, a rail freight operator was recently fined £6.5m after an 11-year-old boy was electrocuted at its depot. 

The boy was all too easily able to enter the site to retrieve a football. On climbing on top of a stationary freight wagon, he received a fatal electric shock from an overhead line. In a prosecution by the rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Road (ORR), the firm was charged with offences under:

  • The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 – for failing to prevent unauthorised access to the depot; and
  • The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 – for failing to assess the risk of unauthorised access.

The company, WH Malcolm, denied the charges but was found guilty at trial. The ORR’s investigation found that the risk of unauthorised access hadn’t been assessed and appropriate measures weren’t in place to prevent public access to the site.

The depot had frequent freight movement and overhead line equipment was energised at 25,000 volts. The court heard that wagons were routinely placed under the electrified lines, despite there being unelectrified sidings. The company was described as having a “culture of cost-cutting” and the court was told that the firm had failed to make appropriate changes.

WH Malcolm had repeatedly been warned about trespassing issues. Greater fencing was recommended but managers believed it was too expensive. After continued trespassing incidents, partial fencing that didn’t solve the issue was installed.

The ORR said: “It is only right that WH Malcolm are held to account for failing to prevent unauthorised access and for failing to manage the risks in what should have been an entirely avoidable tragedy.”

The judge condemned the company, saying: “In contesting this trial the defendant failed to take responsibility for a serious and obvious failing to allow public access to what is and was a dangerous environment.” The judge added that it was “inexplicable” that the site’s boundary wasn’t secured.

In addition to being fined £6.5 million, WH Malcolm Ltd (trading as the Malcolm Group) was ordered to pay full prosecution costs of £241,463. The judge said: “This fine must bring home to directors and board members the need to comply with health and safety legislation.”

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British Airways fined £1.8m after "significant failings" led to baggage trolley crush

In June, British Airways received a substantial fine after an employee was struck by a tug vehicle that was transporting a train of baggage dollies. She was knocked under another passing tug with dollies loaded with luggage, sustaining serious crush injuries.

An investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) found that the injured worker was using the centre of a two-lane roadway as a walking route. This unsafe practice had been commonplace in the baggage hall for several years. The investigation identified “significant failings” in the general management of health and safety and workplace transport risks, including supervision and monitoring, risk assessment and training issues.

British Airways PLC pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £1.8 million and ordered to pay costs of £35,724.

"The situation in the baggage hall was an incident waiting to happen. British Airways failed to appreciate the serious nature of the risks to which its employees were exposed and as a result failed to take appropriate action to ensure they were properly protected."


NHS trust fined £1.5m following repeated failure to manage recognised patient safety risks

Also in June, an NHS trust was fined £1.5m for prolonged safety failings within its mental health wards.

HSE action was taken following concerns about failings by the trust to prevent inpatient suicide. An HSE investigation identified 11 deaths where a “point of ligature was used within the ward environment of the trust’s premises”.

The court heard that the trust failed to effectively manage recognised risks from potential fixed ligature points in its inpatient wards. This exposed vulnerable mental health patients to unacceptable and avoidable risk. HSE investigators concluded that the trust failed to adequately identify, or address with sufficient urgency, the significance of the environmental risks within its inpatient wards.

Essex Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust pleaded guilty to breaching the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. It was fined £1.5 million and ordered to pay costs of £86,222.

The HSE said: “It has long been recognised that a key control in the prevention of inpatient death or self-harm is the identification and removal of potential fixed points of ligature from the ward environment. For a period of more than 10 years, the trust repeatedly failed to manage these well documented risks, including learning from tragic experience, thereby needlessly exposing vulnerable patients in its care to unacceptable risk.”

The judge agreed with HSE prosecutors that a “litany” of failings in safety standards had been ignored over many years. The judge remarked: “There’s no doubt the failures to remove ligature points were a significant cause in the deaths of 11 people who died. Time and time again opportunities to put measures in place were lost.”

Cinema chain fined £750k after customer crushed by reclining seat

Finally, in July, cinema chain Vue Entertainment was fined for safety breaches that led to a man’s death, after he became trapped under a faulty seat footrest.

The film-goer became trapped after trying to retrieve his keys from underneath the reclining seat and was tragically crushed by the motorised footrest. HSE investigators said the force that came down on him was equivalent to three-quarters of a tonne.

The court heard that the luxury recliner had had a replacement footrest mechanism wrongly fitted. The prosecution said it had originally been fitted with a push-only actuator, explaining that “with push-only, once the customer gets off the seat, the actuator simply reacts and the footrest falls back. Under that system, it is always possible to manipulate the footrest by hand, so it represents no trap hazard at all.”

However, in 2007, the push-only actuator was replaced with the seat manufacturer’s newly designed push-pull mechanism. These push-pull actuators were incorrectly fitted to some seats by attaching them directly to the footrest. This “pulled” the footrest down, creating the risk of entrapment. 

The prosecution said the new push-pull actuators “were designed to be accompanied by an upgraded kit which had the parts required to guarantee safe installation”; however, the cinema chain claimed it never them.

Nonetheless, prosecutors stressed that Vue should have properly undertaken a risk assessment on the seat after the actuator was replaced. Such an assessment, they said, would have revealed the fault.

Vue Entertainment Ltd admitted two charges, one under the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and one under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999. It pleaded guilty to failing to carry out a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment and failing to ensure the safety of visitors to the cinema. It was fined £750,000 and ordered to pay £135,000 in legal costs.

The judge described the incident as “an accident that never should have happened”. The judge concurred with the prosecution, saying: “It was found parts of the footrest mechanism had been fitted incorrectly and they had never been tested. If they had been, the accident could have been avoided.”

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Whether a result of missed opportunities to remedy risks, turning a blind eye to unsafe working practices, or missing or inadequate risk assessments, these cases are a fateful reminder that employers must remain alert to their health and safety responsibilities.

Fines are intended to have a real impact. Sentencing guidelines say “the fine must be sufficiently substantial to have a real economic impact which will bring home to both management and shareholders the need to comply with health and safety legislation”. 

To find out how Ellis Whittam can help to protect your people, preserve your bottom line and give you peace of mind through proactive Health & Safety support from professionally-qualified consultants, get in touch on 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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