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Corporate manslaughter prosecutions "gathering momentum", says expert, as kayak firm convicted

Out-Law News | 13 Jan 2015 | 5:10 pm | 2 min. read

The successful prosecution of a firm for corporate manslaughter following the death of a worker who had become trapped in an industrial oven demonstrates the need for firms to ensure that health and safety risks are properly managed, an expert has said.

Kevin Bridges of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is likely to begin more cases against employers in 2015 after an "upsurge" in prosecutions, particularly towards the end of 2014. He said that 16 cases had now been brought under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act since it came into force in April 2008.

Kayak manufacturer Pyranha Mouldings was prosecuted after worker Alan Catterall was trapped in an industrial oven and died at the firm's factory in Runcorn, Cheshire in 2010. The firm's technical director Peter Mackereth, who had designed the oven, was also found guilty of offences under the Health and Safety Act following a five-week trial at Liverpool Crown Court, according to the BBC.

"The Pyranha conviction is the latest success for the CPS, and it remains to be seen what sentence the court imposes and whether it pays any regard to the current consultation being undertaken on the draft sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences and corporate manslaughter," said Bridges.

"The failings identified during the prosecution of Pyranha - that there had not been any risk assessments, that staff had not received suitable training on how to use the ovens and no written instructions had been provided on cleaning and maintenance - reinforce the need for organisations of all sizes to ensure that an effective safety management system is in place, with access to competent health and safety advice; and that this is subject to regular audit," he said.

According to the BBC's report Catterall had been cleaning the oven when another worker turned it on without realising that he was inside. The design of the oven meant that the doors automatically shut and locked the moment it was switched on, trapping Catterall inside. He suffered severe burns and died from shock on 23 December 2010, the report said.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspector who investigated Catterall's death, Martin Heywood, told the court that the automatic locking mechanism had meant that there was a "high risk" of somebody becoming trapped inside. He said that if Mackereth and the firm had "properly considered the risks to employees when they designed, installed and operated the ovens", then Catterall would not have died.

The 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act was intended to make it easier for organisations to be held accountable for deaths caused by their failures. An organisation is guilty of a criminal offence under the act if the way in which its activities were managed or organised caused a person's death, and amounted to a "gross breach" of a relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased. Before the new regime came into force in 2008, companies and public bodies could only be found guilty of an offence if a senior figure acting as the company's 'controlling mind' was also guilty.

Convicted organisations can receive an unlimited fine, and can be required to publicise the fact that they have been convicted and to provide details of that conviction. The Sentencing Council is consulting on updated sentencing guidelines for regulatory offences, including breaches of health and safety and corporate manslaughter laws, until 18 February.

"The sentencing landscape is set to change for these offences and, with the trickle of corporate manslaughter prosecutions seemingly gathering momentum, it is important for senior officers in all organisations to ensure that their health and safety risks are properly managed," Bridges said.

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