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May 21, 2008

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Book review- <b>Safety Crimes</b>

By Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte
Published by Willan Publishing – tel: 01884 849085
ISBN 978-1-84392-085-4
Price: £19.50 (paperback)
Reviewed by Nick Cornwell Smith

As stated on the front cover, this book is part of the publisher’s Crime and Society Series, which encompasses titles such as Sex Crime, Burglary, Armed Robbery, Car Crime, Fraud and Murder. So where do health and safety accidents fit in?

The authors, both sociology academics and on the board of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, set out to show that work-related health and safety failures are corporate crimes, and should be recognised as such.

The book is laid out in nine chapters, each taking a separate thread of the authors’ arguments that all safety (and they have deliberately left ‘health’ out owing to important differences) crimes are “illegal acts or omissions…punishable by the state…which are the result of deliberate decision-making or culpable negligence within a legitimate formal organisation”. They are also crimes of violence.

After an initial chapter to introduce their concept of safety crime, using case studies of the UK construction industry, Bhopal, Herald of Free Enterprise, and Piper Alpha, among others, the subsequent chapters try to explain how these crimes go unrecognised in today’s society.

Starting with the fact of reported numbers, the authors use various databases and accident information to show that the number of people killed and injured by work activities is vastly under-reported. Using their definitions and obtainable data, they estimate that the real number of people killed is around 1700 annually.

The next chapter goes on to say that even as the figures of deaths are under-reported, people’s perceptions of these outcomes are skewed by referring to them as ‘accidents’ and not ‘crimes’, let alone ‘crimes of violence’. This failure in the use of language has, according to the authors, downplayed the serious nature, and criminal culpability, of the organisations managing the work activities that lead to the deaths.

The theme of under-reporting is continued in Chapter 4, which looks at how safety crimes are discovered. The authors use the Home Office definitions and statistics for crimes of ‘violence to the person’ to show that, again, safety crimes are not recognised in these statistics. Further, using the HSE’s data on notices issued and prosecutions undertaken, it is shown that there is a large gap between these two actions, further indicating a lack of a consistent approach.

The history behind the differentiation between safety crime and other crime is explained in the following chapter. This gives a brief history of the factory legislation and how it was ineffective against powerful employers and factory owners.

Having identified the extent of the problem, the authors now turn to changing the treatment and perception of these crimes. The final chapters deal with how the criminal justice system should be adjusted to recognise these corporate safety crimes, regulating and enforcing the safety laws, and finally punishing the offenders. This last section discusses other options to the direct financial penalties of fines, and includes incapacitation (corporate death penalty), rehabilitation, restitution, and shaming.

This book is an academic treatment of a particular view of health and safety, trying to bring safety incidents into the remit of corporate crime involving violence against the person. As such, it is a difficult, “heavy” read, but thought-provoking in that it gets you to look at safety incidents in a different light.

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