Are employees valued enough under health and safety law?

In the modern workplace, every employee expects to be protected. They take it for granted that measures have been put in place to ensure they remain fit and well while they go about their job. However, this has not been the case for that long. Much of today’s legislation can be traced back less than fifty years. The Health and Safety at Work Act etc 1974, upon which most of it is based, was the most radical change in this area since the Factories Act of 1833. It is staggering that it took more than 140 years to bring these laws up to date and relevant to working practices of the time.  

It can be argued that the needs of employees have always lagged behind other business concerns. This has been slowly changing in the twenty first century, as the balance of power has shifted, and employee wellbeing has made its way onto the corporate agenda. Today forward-thinking organisations realise they have a duty of care to support the mental and physical health of their employees. They understand making the health and safety of their workforce a priority can play an important part in attracting and retaining the best talent.

While the needs of employees are definitely being taken more seriously, are they being valu

ed enough? The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has the power to hand out hefty fines, sometimes running in to the millions, but have these kept pace with the fines for other corporate offences?

HSE fines for 2021

In 2021, the HSE and COPFS in Scotland handed out a total of £26.9 million in fines to organisations that had breached health and safety legislation. This was down from £34.9 million in 2020. This decline may be a result of Covid-19 and changing working practices. The average fine in 2021 increased. It was up to £145,000 from £107,000 in 2020.

The largest fine issued in 2021 was to rail operator W H Malcolm Ltd. They were found guilty of negligence following the death of an 11-year-old boy who was fatally electrocuted at the Daventry International Freight Train Terminal when he went to retrieve a football in 2017. The second largest fine was given to the National Grid. They were fined £4million plus costs for a failure to make health and safety records available. British Airways was third on the list, fined £1.8million plus costs after an employee was crushed by a tug vehicle.

There is no doubting that these fines are substantial, but put into context, they don’t look quite so significant. National Grid had an estimated turnover of almost £15 billion pounds in 2021. Their fine from the HSE equals just 0.03% of this.

Fines for breaches of General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)

The value of data has never been so high. The wealth of multibillion pound global giants such as Meta and Google have been built on the access to and use of data. It has given them enormous power and influence, arguably more than any other organis

ations in history. Protecting this data is important but is it significantly more valuable than the health and safety of individuals?

The UK GDPR set a maximum fine of £17.5 million or 4% of annual global turnover when it was introduced in 2018. If the HSE had the same rules, National Grid could have been fined up to £

600 million.

British Airways was fined for a breach of GDPR in 2020, after users of their website were directed to a fraudulent site. The fine was £20 million, more than 10 times the fine they faced for failing to protect their employee while he was at work. While, the GDPR breach did effect around 400,000 people, it is doubtful that any one of them was affected as seriously as the employee who sustained “serious crush injuries” or his colleagues who witnessed the accident.

Time for a rethink

Given these discrepancies, it appears that the health and safety of employees may not be valued highly enough and that fines

have failed to increase in line with other acts of business negligence. It is good news that

the Sentencing Council is consulting on draft guidelines for sentencing health and safety offences. Their aim is to set fines at a level to have a real economic impact that will ensure management and shareholders take the action needed to provide a safe environment for their employees and the general public. Complying with legislation should not be the benchmark for employers but the absolute basic level to achieve. Responsible organisations should be striving for best practice in this area. Are the levels of health and safety fines encouraging them to do this at the moment? We look forward to hearing the results of their review later this year.