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How better health & safety systems can lower fines

21 September 2020

Since the introduction of the new sentencing guidelines, penalties for breaching health & safety law have got tougher. Having the appropriate processes in place can help to mitigate the risks, says Ian McKinnon

WHILE PRIORITISING health & safety is a moral obligation for any organisation, the business impact of getting health & safety wrong cannot be ignored and new sentencing guidelines for health & safety introduced in February 2016 have resulted in longer prison sentences and larger fines for those who fall foul of the law.

The sentencing guidelines suggest fines should be substantial enough to have an economic impact that will get management and shareholders to take notice. Since their introduction the average fine per conviction for a health & safety offence in the construction sector has risen from a pre-guideline average of £57,735, to £107,000 in 2018/19. There has also been an unexpected rise in the size of fines imposed on small businesses which has almost doubled to £126,000. It’s also important to note that it’s now the risk of harm that is recognised as the offence and increasingly large fines are being handed down without any actual harm taking place.

There is much businesses can do to lower their culpability and ensure that in the event of an incident they never face fines of these figures but first it’s useful to understand how fines are decided.

Levels of culpability

The starting point for fines is based on a number of factors including a company’s size and its level of culpability which ranges from Very High to Low. For a large company accused of a serious offence with Very High culpability this means a fine could begin at £4,000,000 whereas this would start at £300,000 in the case of Low culpability. Likewise for a micro business with High Culpability a fine could start at £250,000 whereas Low Culpability would result in a starting point of £30,000.

low risk organisations can often demonstrate effective risk management without a formal management system

Very High culpability includes deliberate breach of or flagrant disregard for the law while factors that lower culpability include a good health & safety record and having effective health & safety procedures in place. The right health & safety processes vary depending on the size and nature of an organisation. A food reference point is HSE’s guide on managing for health and safety (HSG 65) which provides a clear process-based approach to risk management. For larger companies following ISO 45001 or other similar management standards may be appropriate as they can help provide a structured framework for managing health & safety. However low risk organisations can often demonstrate effective risk management without a formal management system. In these cases a simpler and less bureaucratic approach may be more appropriate such as that outlined in HSE’s guidance on health and safety made simple (https://www.hse.gov.uk/simple-health-safety/index.htm).

Ensuring a consistent approach

Whichever approach is deemed appropriate a major challenge in achieving a consistent approach to health & safety is ensuring that standards are upheld throughout the supply chain which requires sound contractor and sub contractor management. Anyone engaging contractors has health and safety responsibilities, both for the contractors and anyone else that could be affected by their activities. Therefore a contractor assessment process needs to be in place.

How can supply chain management services help?

Companies can carry out contractor assessment themselves but constantly changing rules and regulations can make this approach complicated and costly. This is where third-party accreditation comes in. At CHAS (The Supply Chain Risk Management Experts), we have been helping organisations verify that everyone in their supply chain is working to a consistently high standard for several decades - this means we check, for example, whether contractors have adequate health & safety systems in place, establish whether an organisation has ready access to competent health & safety advice/assistance and make checks around training and competency. We also provide an alert system which notifies contractors when insurance policies and health & safety qualifications are about to expire which helps to ensure contractors’ qualifications are always up-to-date.

Clients looking for competent contractors can sign up to become a CHAS Client free of charge which gives them access to an industry leading database of over 35,000 accredited contractors. CHAS Clients can instantly find compliant contractors via the CHAS Client Portal, where they can search by geographic area and trade (no matter how specialist) to help them identify contractors who are accredited and available. CHAS Clients also have access to CHAS’s business services completely free which includes compliance assessments, contractor matching and contractor engagement services.

Industry wide approach

In 2019 we became the first accreditation body to offer the Common Assessment Standard (CAS), a new pre-qualification system developed alongside Build UK and the Civil Engineering Contractors Association which standardises the construction pre-qualification process. For contractors the introduction of the Common Assessment Standard means that passing one annual assessment will make them eligible to work with a host of clients who have already signed up to the scheme – which it is hoped will eventually be adopted unanimously. These assessments are made freely available to clients so that they can quickly and easily find qualifying contractors with a proven commitment to upholding, not only high health & standards, but also high standards across a number of other areas including anti-bribery & corruption, modern slavery prevention and environmental sustainability to name a few.

Choosing to use accredited contractors, such as those assessed to the Common Assessment Standard, therefore helps clients to demonstrate responsibility and safeguard their workforce, their reputation and their business. Meanwhile contractors can be confident that demonstrating their commitment to the standards specified in the Common Assessment Standard, via a short annual assessment, will open up additional employment opportunities.

Ian McKinnon is managing director at CHAS (The Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme)