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In 2015/2016 just over a quarter of the 144 fatal injuries reported by the Health and Safety Executive were caused by a fall from height. Due to the inherently dangerous tasks involved it can be a common assumption that falls from height are limited to the construction industry. However, only 18 of these deaths occurred in the construction sector. Many others occurred in agriculture, forestry, fishing and manufacturing.
Evidence so far this year seems to suggest that this trend is continuing and there have been a series of recent prosecutions against companies who are not part of the construction industry. As a result it is important for all businesses, regardless of their sector, to be mindful of the risks posed by falling from height.
Recent Prosecutions in non-construction sectors
The most significant recent example comes from a prosecution against Iceland Supermarkets, which resulted in a £2.5 million fine and an award of £65,000 in costs to Rotherham Council after a contractor fell three metres through a suspended ceiling whilst working on an air conditioning unit. Investigations revealed there had been no barriers in place to prevent falls, and that the working platform itself was limited in size with several tripping hazards present including cables. Further investigations showed that Iceland had not carried out a risk assessment to consider access to the platform for either contractors or its own employees.
Iceland was found guilty of breaching Sections 2(1) and 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 following a three-week trial held at Sheffield Crown Court in July 2017. Council official Karen Hanson said that "all businesses should be aware of the importance of health and safety – particularly for high-risk activities such as working from heights" and emphasised the need for health and safety considerations to be mindful of third parties such as contractors as well as their own employees.
Additionally, in May this year, Queen Elizabeth's Girls' School of Barnet was fined £2,000.00 having pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 6(3) of The Work at Height Regulations 2005 after a teacher fell from a step ladder whilst conducting rigging and spotlight adjustment in the school's drama studio. Speaking after the hearing HSE Inspector John Spence said: “If the school had conducted a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the light rigging task and ensured that employees undertook the appropriate information, training and instruction available this incident could have been prevented.”
However, it is worth noting that it is not only the carrying out of work activities that can result in prosecutions from height related injury. There are also recent examples of prosecutions in the care sector.
Caring Homes Healthcare Group Limited was fined £450,000 and ordered to pay costs of £14,762.44 after an elderly patient with dementia disabled the window restrictor and fell four metres through her window. Caring Homes pleaded guilty to breaching Section 3(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. HSE Inspector Rebekah Dunn said: “It was clear from our investigation that the window restrictor was simply not doing the job of preventing the window from opening. It is alarming, and tragic, that an 87-year-old woman with dementia was able to defeat it… Caring Homes therefore failed to ensure the woman’s safety, which is particularly important given its unique position of trust.”
The fines under the 2015 Sentencing Guidelines as demonstrated in the above examples can be severe, are linked to turnover and are unlimited. However, it is also worth remembering that individuals and directors are vulnerable to personal prosecution where there are health and safety failings.
On the 13th September 2017 Leeds Crown Court heard how two employees of C Smith Roofing had been spotted from an office window working on a Guest House roof with insufficient edge protection at a height of 7 metres by two local Health and Safety Risk Managers for the North Yorkshire County Council. Company director Chris Smith pleaded guilty to breaching Regulation 6 (3) of the Work at height Regulations 2005 and received an 8 month prison sentence suspended for two years and was ordered to complete 200 hours of community service. It should also be noted that there was no fatality or injury in this case and that there is none required in law for a prosecution to arise for health and safety failings.
As a result, it is crucial that all businesses, directors and employees are mindful of the risks posed by failing to properly assess and control any height related activity. The statistics for 2016/2017 show that the second highest cause of death of a worker was falls from a height with 25 out of 137 worker fatalities losing their life in this manner and it is likely that the Health and Safety Executive will continue to pursue such breaches rigorously as part of their 2017/2018 strategy plan for "helping Great Britain work well" and their newly launched "go home healthy" campaign.
If you have any queries or concerns with regard to corporate criminal liability, please contact a member of our Business Risk and Regulation team.