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The New Sentencing Guidelines – Nine Months in

18th October 2016

Back in February, we posted a blog article, advising of changes to the sentencing guidelines for, amongst other things, health and safety offences.

The guidelines  direct the courts to consider the sentencing of offending organisations by way of a step-by-step approach, by examining culpability, the seriousness of harm risked and the likelihood of harm. Nine months on, we take a look at what this has meant in practice.

On the 8th of February, ConocoPhillips (UK) Limited became the first very large organisation to be convicted and sentenced under the new guidelines, although the hearing actually commenced prior to the date on which the new guidelines came into force. The company, which has a turnover of £4.8 billion, pleaded guilty to three breaches of health and safety regulations for a series of uncontrolled and unexpected gas releases at one of its offshore installations, an incident which resulted in no injury.

As a result of the incident, the firm was hit £3 million fine, this despite the fact that they had recorded pre-tax losses of of some £85 million!

The ConocoPhillips fine marked  a step-change in the level of fines being imposed for breaches of health and safety law. In the time between 1975 (the year following the introduction of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act, 1974) and 2016, there were a total of 32 penalties of £1m or more recorded, which equates to just 0.43 per annum, and these were generally reserved for large-scale multiple fatality incidents, including those at Hatfield, Ladbroke Grove and the Transco, Larkhall incident.


Nine months on since the introduction of the new sentencing guidelines and there has already been 16 fines of £1m or more, for household names such as Travis Perkins, G4S, Scottish Power and Tata Steel, and which, if this rate continues, will mean of a total in the region of 30-40 per annum!

The addage of ‘good health and safety is good business’ has long been the mantra of Health & Safety Professionals and forward thinking business leaders alike, but given the sheer numbers of large fines and the costs involved, it’s very likely that even those who have been prepared to turn a blind eye to poor safety performance will have their focus sharpened as news of these ‘new’ fines permeates throughout industry.

Latest HSE figures reveal that in 2014/2015 there were a total of 142 people killed at work in the UK, 76,000 reported injuries and a massive 1.2m cases of work-related ill health.

Work at height remains the single biggest cause of workplace deaths, averaging at 27.5 of all fatalities during the past four years and ‘low level’ falls (less than 2m) account for two-thirds of all ‘major’ work at height injuries. During 2016, there has so far been 27 HSE prosecutions for work at height offences.

Considering these statistics, it is clear that UK Limited still has some way to go before we can consider ourselves a truly safe place to work and the fact that the UK has a very enviable health and safety record (when considered in a worldwide context), will mean little to the families and loved ones caught up in these statistics.

Good health and safety really does mean good business!