Tough lessons to be learned in the education sector in light of new health and safety sentencing guidelines

Guildford College has been handed a fine of £70,000 and a costs bill of £3,461 after a student sustained a leg injury from a falling tree on 5 May…

Guildford College (‘the college’) has been handed a fine of £70,000 and a costs bill of £3,461 in addition, after a student sustained a leg injury from a falling tree on 5 May 2015.

The campus supervisor instructed the estates team to take two work experience students to observe a tree being felled. Whilst the tree was being cut down by an employee, two students arrived to watch the task but the tree hit one of the students as it fell, fracturing his leg.

A subsequent investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) revealed insufficient training to conduct work of this nature; that the risk assessments in place were inadequate and had in any event not been followed.

The college pleaded guilty to charges under sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 at Redhill Magistrates’ Court.

Health and safety offences sentenced on or after 1 February 2016 are now subject to new, “tougher”, sentencing guidelines in comparison to sanctions that may have been expected previously. Whilst the implementation date for the Sentencing Council Guidelines for ‘Health and Safety Offences, Corporate Manslaughter and Food Safety and Hygiene Offences’ (‘the Guidelines’) has only just taken place, there have already been a number of cases which have given a strong indication of what may be expected in terms of sanctions for health and safety breaches going forward with some fines already well in excess of £1m for the most serious offences.

As well as aiming to provide judges with a consistent approach to sentencing individuals and companies convicted of health and safety breaches, higher penalties will be available for the most serious of offences after the courts take into account levels of the offender’s culpability and risk of serious harm as well as a non-exhaustive list of mitigating and aggravating circumstances. The starting point for the level of fine imposed is given according to the size of an organisation, which is an assessment of turnover as follows:

  • Micro – Turnover not more than £2 million
  • Small – Turnover between £2 and £10 million
  • Medium – Turnover between £10 and £50 million
  • Large – Turnover over £50 million

The starting point for a fine to be imposed on even a “small” company or organisation in relation to a breach with very high culpability and high risk of harm is placed at £450,000 with a range of £300,000 to £1,600,000.                  

With this in mind, educational organisations of all sizes may wish to conduct a review of their health and safety systems and ensure that all policies and procedures in place are rigorously followed and documented so that risk of injury is minimised and the potential for criminal liability is reduced as far as possible.

For further information about Weightmans or to discuss any of the issues in this update, please contact Crispin Kenyon, Partner, on 02078227151 or email crispin.kenyon@weightmans.com

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