Ruth Mitchell

New Year, new penalties

New laws introduced later this month on accidents in the workplace could see company directors and managers ending up behind bars, a according to a North East law firm.

From 16 January, individuals convicted of a wide range of health and safety offences will be liable to be sent to prison for up to two years under a new overhaul of health and safety legislation.

Lawyers at Ward Hadaway say that while changes to the law on corporate manslaughter earlier this year have been well publicised, the introduction of the Health and Safety (Offences) Act 2008 has slipped by almost unnoticed.

However, while corporate manslaughter is likely to apply in only a handful of cases, a custodial sentence will be an option for most health and safety offences heard in either the Magistrates Court or the Crown Court.

From January 16, individuals found guilty can be handed a jail term of up to 12 months by magistrates or up to two years by the Crown Court.

James Thompson, partner in the health and safety team at Ward Hadaway, said: “This is a major step-change in health and safety law and one which is likely to affect a whole raft of different businesses.

“This is a signal of intent from the Government and the Health and Safety Executive that they mean to get tough on companies which do not follow correct procedures and cause accidents as a result.”

The Health and Safety Executive is also embarking on a campaign to make workers more aware of issues in the workplace.

Experts say the new sanctions will strengthen the HSE’s arm still further and are likely to lead to more in-depth investigations.

James Thompson said: “It is vital that businesses ensure their health and safety procedures are up to date and stringently observed.

“Getting the right advice to ensure companies keep the right side of the law will be even more important in 2009. After all, no-one would want to see the coming year from behind the bars of a cell.”

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