Directors responsible for safety breaches now higher fines and greater risk of a prison sentence

Tighter laws on health and safety that could see construction bosses going to prison in the event of a fatal accident on site come into force today (Friday January 16th), but the weeklies find legal experts are divided on how much impact they will have.

The Health and Safety (Offences) Act raises the maximum fines in magistrates courts from £5000 to £20,000, and increases the list of offences that could lead to a custodial sentence. Company directors could go to prison for up to two years if they’re found responsible for work-related accidents.

“This act will certainly focus the mind,” Luke Wessley, managing director of Allan Roofing, told Building. “It will make employers have a knowledge of what procedures they have in place already.”

But Diane Johnson, director of electrical contractor Eric Johnson, said she was worried that the legislation would hit even those managers who had worked hard to avoid accidents: “If you have taught your worker and given him the correct equipment, and your man goes against what you have taught him, then there should be a defence for the employer.”

Meanwhile, Aine McCartney, an associate at law firm Taylor Wessing, told Construction News that the new Act might be hard to enforce: "The problem with current law – and this Act will not do anything to change the courts' attitudes – is that it is difficult for courts to take into consideration how far a perpetrator has gone to prevent health and safety breaches. There should be some scope for engaging these organisations in a dialogue designed to make them recognise the need for health and safety duties and to take action to prevent breach."

Meanwhile, Contract Journal reports on the sad death of an unnamed 23-year-old man working on a Birse Metro project on Tottenham Court Road in central London. He suffered severe burns when a high voltage cable next to him exploded on December 2, and was taken to the burns unit at Broomfield Hospital in Chelmsford, where he remained in a critical condition until he died on Christmas Day.