Harsher penalties for health and safety offenders


Hard Hat

Courts are handing down harsher penalties for breaches of health and safety law since the introduction of the Health and Safety (Offences) Act five years ago, according to a review by the HSE.


A post-legislative scrutiny document shows that changes introduced under the 2008 Act (which came into effect in January 2009) have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, higher fines for offenders and more individual jail terms.

The aim of the Act was to raise the maximum penalties available to the courts for certain offences by altering the penalty framework set out in the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.

Key findings of the review, carried out on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), include:

  • a greater proportion of cases have been heard in the lower courts since the Act came into force: 86% compared to 70% in the period leading up to its introduction
  • the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60%, from £4577 to £7310
  • for cases involving a combination of breaches of regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act, the average increase was 25%, from £13,334 to £16,730.

“By handing greater sentencing powers to magistrates and sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison,” said Mike Penning, minister of state for health and safety.

“At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts.”

The report analysed data taken between 1 April 2006 and 15 January 2009, and between 16 January 2009 and 31 March 2013.

In the pre-Act period, 4% of cases that went before the higher courts and 1% that went before the lower courts led to a custodial sentence or equivalent (suspended sentence or community service). Since the Act, the figures are 18% and 5%.

Custodial sentences are only relevant for prosecutions involving individuals, rather than corporate bodies. The Act made imprisonment an option for a much wider range of offences.