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HSE statistics 2022/23 — fewer prosecutions but fines remain very high

135 workers were killed in work-related incidents in Great Britain in the last year.

Tom Boulton, Principal Associate in Weightmans’ regulatory team, looks at the Health and Safety Executive’s (“HSE”) latest workplace fatality statistics, prosecution statistics, example sentencing outcomes and reflects on what this may tell us about HSE’s approach to enforcement and what this could mean for your organisation.

HSE workplace fatality statistics 2022/23

HSE published its latest workplace fatality statistics on 6 July 2023. 135 workers were killed in work-related incidents in Great Britain in the last year, up from 123 the previous year.

The industries with the highest deaths were construction (45), agriculture, forestry and fishing (21), manufacturing (15) and transportation and storage (15). Agriculture, forestry and fishing has the highest rate of fatal injury per 100,000 workers of all the main industrial sectors followed by waste and recycling.

The annual data release published by HSE covers the period from April 2022 to March 2023.

The three most common causes of fatal injuries are falls from height (40), being struck by a moving object (29), and being struck by a moving vehicle (20).

A further 68 members of the public were killed following a work-related incident in 2022/23. This is a decrease of 20 from last year.

HSE Investigations and Prosecutions

In 2022/23, HSE completed 216 criminal prosecutions which is a considerable decrease from the 290 criminal prosecutions in 2021/22. From these statistics it may look like HSE have taken their foot off the pedal when it comes to bringing prosecutions. Interestingly however, after the number of enforcement notices reduced hugely during the pandemic years there appears to have been a notable uptick in enforcement notices issued by HSE in 2022/23. HSE issued approximately 8000 notices (approximately 6000 notices for improvement and 2000 notices prohibiting work activity placing people at risk of death/serious injury). This compares with approximately 6900 notices issued in 2021/22 (approximately 5190 improvement and 1,740 prohibition). If the upward trajectory of enforcement notices continues, it is possible that we might begin to see in future a turnaround in the trend in recent years for decreasing numbers of prosecutions but only time will tell.

Conviction rates, fines and case studies

Whilst the number of prosecutions being brought by HSE has been decreasing, the conviction rate for prosecutions remains very high and stands at 94% for 2022/23.

Fines handed out in recent cases continue to demonstrate the strong and unwavering approach taken by the courts when it comes to sentencing health and safety offences. Judges appear to be increasingly comfortable with handing down very large fines following the introduction of the Health and Safety Sentencing Guidelines in 2016.

Company fined £2.3 million after workers put at risk of death

On 24 March this year, a major pipeline transportation company was fined £2.3 million for safety breaches after its employees were exposed to risk of serious injury and death while working on a leaking pipeline containing petrol under pressure.

Workers at Exolum Pipeline System Ltd, formerly known as CLH Pipeline System (CLH-PS) Ltd, were excavating a suspected pipeline leak in the woodland adjacent to the B1398 and M180 near Holme, North Lincolnshire, between 7 to 10 March 2018. The employees were working in an area where a previous repair had taken place.

The risks arising from the excavation work and exposure were significant. An unknown defect on the previous repair of the pipeline which contained petroleum under high pressure had the potential to form a flammable cloud extending over several metres from the work area, causing those in the immediate vicinity to potentially be covered in a heavy spray of petrol and engulfed in petrol vapour. If ignition had occurred before the area could be evacuated, then there would have been a very high risk of death or serious injury.

An investigation by HSE into the incident found that Exolum Pipeline System Ltd failed to properly identify and control the risks associated with carrying out a pipeline repair.

Exolum Pipeline System Ltd, of King William Street, London, was found guilty of an offence contrary to Section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and an offence contrary to Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 following a trial at Grimsby Crown Court. The company was fined £2.3 million and ordered to pay £157,431 in costs at Grimsby Crown Court on 24 March 2023.

Birmingham wall collapse deaths: Directors jailed after five men lost their lives

In July 2016, at the Shredmet scrap metal recycling site at Nechells, Birmingham, five workers were crushed to death and another seriously injured when a partition wall in a recycling bay toppled over. The wall fell due to the way in which scrap metal was stored and the way the wall had been built.

Hawkeswood Metal Recycling Ltd, who controlled the site before the collapse and constructed the wall, and Shredmet Ltd and the then directors of both companies, Wayne Hawkeswood and Graham Woodhouse, were charged with offences contrary to sections 2, 3 and 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act etc. Act 1974. On 15 May 2023, following a five-week trial at Birmingham Crown Court in November 2022, both men were jailed for nine months, and their companies were fined a combined total of £1.6 million. The judge also ordered £775,000 to be paid in prosecution costs.

Key takeaways and messages

For the time being at least, the number of HSE prosecutions continues to decrease, but with very high conviction rates and substantial fines continuing to be imposed by the courts, businesses and organisations simply cannot afford to take their eye off the ball when it comes to complying with their health and safety duties and obligations.

Where there has been a fatality, HSE’s starting point will always be a prosecution but as the Exolum Pipeline System Ltd case illustrates above, courts are prepared to take an uncompromising approach and hand down multi-million-pound fines when employees are exposed to risk of serious injury and death while working even if no actual harm has been caused. The Birmingham wall collapse case illustrates the court’s appetite to send culpable Directors to prison where the company has committed health and safety breaches.

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