Northern Ireland courts take tough stance on health and safety offences

Out-Law News | 01 Jul 2019 | 1:19 pm | 1 min. read

A recent sentencing which saw a company fined £150,000 after an employee died at work when he was crushed between two machines shows how Northern Irish courts are approaching sentencing in health and safety cases with increasing fines, an expert has said.

Health and safety expert Laura Gillespie of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law, said the increasing level of fines being handed down in Northern Ireland are part of a wider trend.

"Whilst the sentencing guidelines of England and Wales do not apply in Northern Ireland, the fines being issued are following an upwards trajectory, common with trends being seen in Great Britain," Gillespie said. 

"In this case, a previous charge of corporate manslaughter was ‘left on the books’ and therefore, we will not know whether the court would have issued the highest fee yet if that charge had been made out. It is clear that the courts in Northern Ireland are taking a tough stance on health and safety breaches," Gillespie said.

In the latest case, Terex GB was found guilty of offences underArticles 4(1) and 5(1) of the Health and Safety at Work (NI) Order 1978 and Regulation 3(1)(a) of the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations (NI) 2000.

Health and Safety Executive Northern Ireland inspector Kyle Carrick said the fatality could have been avoided had the company had properly considered the risks involved in the task which led to the employee’s death, and put measures in place to manage them.

In England and Wales, new sentencing guidelines for use by the courts in health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene cases, came into force on 1 February 2016. The guideline was intended to ensure a consistent approach in the sentencing of individuals and organisations convicted of these offences and directly links fines to the risk of harm as a result of health and safety failings, rather than any actual harm caused.

Jennifer Lee of Pinsent Masons said: "This is the fourth company in Northern Ireland sentenced this year for health and safety breaches concerning work site fatalities. The themes which prevail in these matters are the importance of training and supervision of employees, routine maintenance of machinery and vehicles and the importance of comprehensive risk assessments. The legislation is clear that employers must take all reasonably practicable measures to protect employees and those who may be affected by their works from harm. Once risk has been established by the HSENI/Prosecution Service, the burden is on the company to demonstrate that it took all reasonably practicable measures which can prove to be a tough burden to discharge".

Other cases earlier this year saw another company also fined £150,000 and one fined £50,000 for breaches of the regulations which led to employee deaths, while a fourth company was given a fine of £15,000 after a tenant was found dead within an excavation site at the rear of his house.