The UK has one of the lowest workplace fatal injury rates across Europe but unfortunately fatal accidents to employees do still occur – on average 140 times a year. Organisations whose failures cause or contribute to these deaths have long been able to be prosecuted for breaching health and safety legislation and since April 2008, it has also been possible for them to be convicted of corporate manslaughter where they commit a gross breach of a duty of care and this causes a death.
There have however been less than 30 convictions for corporate manslaughter so far, and these have all been against relatively small companies. This is largely because corporate manslaughter requires a failing by senior management, and it is much easier to attribute failings to senior management in small organisations where senior management will have more day-to-day control. Sentencing Guidelines for corporate manslaughter introduced in 2016 suggest fines can be upwards of £20m, but to date fines for corporate manslaughter have been much, much, lower.
Individuals cannot commit corporate manslaughter (the clue is in the title) but can be convicted of gross negligence manslaughter if they commit a gross breach of a duty of care owed to the victim. But again, the number of prosecutions for gross negligence manslaughter in the health and safety context have been low, and most of those convicted have received community orders, fines or suspended sentences.
2022 has however seen some change with two convictions for corporate manslaughter being imposed so far (after zero in 2021 and only one in 2020 and one in 2019), one with the highest fine to date and a number of individuals actually being sent to prison.
In March 2022, an aluminium recycling company was fined £2m (the highest corporate manslaughter fine for a single charge to date) after it pleaded guilty to corporate manslaughter following the death of an employee who sustained fatal head injuries when his head came into contact with the moving parts of a chain conveyor. The fine should have been a third higher if it wasn’t for the guilty plea. The investigation found that dangerous parts of machinery were unguarded after gates that had been installed to prevent access fell into disrepair and that employees often entered the machinery to manually clear blockages whilst conveyors were in motion and not isolated. The firm had only 80 employees but is one of the largest companies convicted of corporate manslaughter to date. The fine amounted to 71% of it’s pre-tax profit.
In the same case, three directors/managers (the managing director, the production director; and the health and safety manager) pleaded guilty to health and safety offences on the basis that gross negligence manslaughter charges were dropped (in essence they accepted the failings but not that they had caused the death). Financial penalties were imposed on all three, the highest being £15,000.
Three months later, in June 2022, a second £2m fine was handed down to a food waste recycling company (now in liquidation) convicted of corporate manslaughter following the death of two employees who drowned after falling into a road haulage tanker containing semi-liquid pig feed (£1m was imposed for each death). The deaths occurred after one employee got into difficulty after he had climbed into the tanker to clean it with a power hose (the system in place for cleaning tankers) and a colleague climbed in to try to rescue him. Both died from drowning after being either overcome by toxic product or from lack of oxygen. The court heard that there was no proper risk assessment for the cleaning, no method statement, no PPE/breathing equipment and that previous concerns raised by employees had been ignored. The company had also had a previous fatal accident in 2005.
This company was run by a husband and wife. One, who was responsible for the day-to-day running of the site and had tasked the deceased with cleaning out the tank, was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for gross negligence manslaughter. The other, the Managing Director, was sentenced to 20 months imprisonment for health and safety offences. The Transport Manager who was in charge of the yard received a one year suspended sentence again for health and safety offences.
Also in June 2022, the owner of a construction company was sent to prison for five years for the gross negligence manslaughter of a roofer who was killed in a fall from height after he lost his balance on a ladder he was carrying a roll of felt up and fell two storeys. The owner of a second construction firm (the sub-contractor) was imprisoned for 15 months for health and safety breaches. There was no scaffolding, edge protection or barriers, no lifting equipment to lift the felt and no suitable risk assessment or method statement. The two companies (both of whom were small) were both fined for health and safety breaches, £210,000 and £120,000 respectively.
These cases show that although the number of manslaughter convictions for workplace accidents has been low, the police and CPS will still investigate manslaughter following fatal accidents and they will bring charges where they believe they have sufficient evidence to do so. This is particularly notable following the May 2021 corporate manslaughter case against Bosely Mill and gross negligence manslaughter case against its Managing Director, after the death of four workers in an explosion. All parties were acquitted of manslaughter, despite evidence of negligence due to an accumulation of dangerous quantities of dust left in place, as experts could not determine that this was the cause of the explosion and so it could not be proven that although there were gross failings, that these caused the death. The Company received a small fine and the Managing Director a suspended sentence for health and safety breaches. The Prosecution said that the company cut costs at the expense of safety and that there was a continuing history of smouldering fires and explosions at the site.
If you have any questions about the above or specific queries on how we at Bevan Brittan can help you please contact Louise Mansfield.