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June 8, 2010

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Bring on directors’ duties, urge top lawyers

Too many employers are still not taking health and safety seriously enough, despite tougher laws and harsher penalties, a survey of company lawyers has found.

Some 80 in-house lawyers for a range of firms in such sectors as construction, chemicals and utilities were asked by Manchester-based law firm Pannone LLP whether further duties need to be placed on directors in order to get them to really focus on health and safety.

Two thirds of the lawyers, representing some of the UK’s biggest companies, said directors’ duties in law are necessary to ensure they take health and safety seriously, and 65 per cent believe they are needed to protect workers.

Despite widespread hype over the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act in 2008, it prompted just 38 per cent of organisations to take health and safety more seriously, said their lawyers.

Interestingly, they also revealed that rather than the prospect of an unlimited fine for being convicted under the new Act, they are more fearful of the publicity resulting from the case. Publicity orders will be an option in the case of corporate manslaughter convictions, and may require offending organisations to publicise the fact of conviction, particulars of the offence and the level of fine in a specified publication or website, at a particular size and location.

Just over half the lawyers questioned (53 per cent) were concerned that this media coverage could cause immense damage to their employer’s reputation.
Despite the potentially catastrophic effect this publicity and a multi-million-pound fine could have on their employers, most of the lawyers felt the new sanctions are fair enough – 70 per cent deemed them “not too harsh”.
John Gollaglee, regulatory partner and health and safety specialist at Pannone, said: “The last decade has seen a growing trend for prosecuting bodies to target individuals and, as a result, we are seeing a large increase in the number of investigations focusing on individual company directors and managers.
“More recently, the net is widening to include advisors such as health and safety professionals. In fact, we have one case where a senior health and safety officer is facing criminal charges simply because an accident happened ‘on his watch’.
“However, despite the rise in criminal investigations and charges, it seems that the majority of in-house lawyers believe a legal duty on directors is still necessary to ensure that they take health and safety seriously.”

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13 years ago

Directors would have a lot less to worry about if they have a system like the one we have started using called The Action Manager, which allows directors and senior management and monitor their company’s health and safety activities in real time and ensure that good risk management is spread down throughout their company.

13 years ago

I think Ray’s right, you could have a list of statutory duties as long as your arm, if they;re ignored nothing changes. The legislation covering H & S is in place already and often ignored. Perhaps, rather than giving directors legal duties, they should be licensed to hold the position and part of this could include compulsory H & S training and attitude assessment. After all you need to be competent and trained to, for example, erect a scaffold or drive a fork lift, but there is no such requirement for someone who is ultimately responsible for the health and… Read more »

13 years ago

I am a great believer in personal responsibility and if Directors’ Duties assist to that end all well and good. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that those companies who do not comply with h&s law and put their employees at risk are SMEs. These same directors will also ignore and specific duties associated with directors’ duties. They will only be caught and perhaps prosectuted when there is a serious accident, which is exactly the status quo under HSWA and s37. So, nothing is likely to change.