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Harsher sentencing guidelines will impact construction, says insurance company

1 April 2016
Working safely

Stay safe. Stay healthy.

Construction insurance specialist Focus is offering online health & safety self-assessment on its website to its policy holders to try to help cut the incidence of health & safety breaches. The move follows new sentencing guidelines in England and Wales that came into force in February. They will increase fines still further for health & safety breaches.

The new guidelines from the Sentencing Council are designed to reinforce efforts to improve health & safety standards across a wide spectrum of businesses, but construction will be more affected than most because it is so hazardous in nature.

The guidelines will maintain the trend towards tougher penalties for employers’ health & safety failings, whether or not actual injuries result. The guidelines are intended to reflect the degree of employer culpability and the extent of the risk of serious harm.

Penalties are intended to have enough financial impact to impress upon management and shareholders the need to operate within the law. There is an implication that the larger the company the bigger the fine, with a £20million fine possible for a serious offence by a major company.

Where the most serious offences are shown to involve corporate manslaughter, both the financial penalty and the personal consequences are too great for anyone to ignore. A closely implicated director could face charges that carry a possible two-year jail term.

“In an ideal world, such a severe regime shouldn’t be necessary,” says John Finch, Commercial Director of Focus. “You’d surely imagine that the prospect of seeing a worker with multiple injuries after a fall from height would be enough to encourage site safety.

“Yet such incidents occur weekly in the industry and many cases are taken to court by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). Almost invariably the HSE representative will explain how a fall, impact from a heavy load or vehicle, or other incident was wholly avoidable.

“Health & safety breaches can take many forms: inadequate training and supervision; unsafe working practices; absence of personal protective equipment; outright illegal work such as unlicensed asbestos removal. These are often down to poor planning.”

All these issues also have implications for insurers. Like construction industry employers and workers, insurers have a clear interest in achieving a reduced level of incidents. All claims contribute to the costs of employers’ or public liability insurance that firms need.

So insurers believe it is not unreasonable to expect employers to exercise a proper level of care over the safety of their workers and of others at or near a site. If an employer is prosecuted for health & safety failings, their insurability might be called into question.

“The first step to ensure compliance, avoid site accidents and keep insurance premiums down is a risk assessment,” says John Finch. “Our online self-assessment tool can aid this process, whether or not an upgrade to a full risk management service is envisaged."

Last year, HSE inspectors visited 60 stone businesses from June to September in an organised clamp down, including work surface manufacturers, stonemasons and monumental masons and found serious health & safety breaches at 58% of the premises visited. HSE issued four Prohibition Notices, 54 Improvement Notices and provided verbal advice to others. And these days HSE charges for its interventions.

HSE Inspector Tahir Mortuza, who led on the initiative, said: “HSE intends to visit more stone work businesses in the future to ensure that health & safety is adequately managed. Business owners should review their processes and the materials they use while thinking about what might cause harm and whether they are doing enough to protect workers." (read more about that here...)

John Finch says: “I see the new sentencing guidelines as a move in the right direction. The possible gains for workers and for insurers are clear. For employers, the effort and expense of safety compliance must be worth it, even if no size of fine should motivate more than a fatality.”

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