UK: Are Higher Fines Necessary to Deter Violations?

Are penalty amounts for occupational safety and health violations too low to deter companies from committing serious violations? Yes, says Timothy Walker, director general of the UK's Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

"More enforcement action in higher risk industries through the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) more targeted inspection program aims to reduce instances of ill-health, serious injuries and needless fatalities," he notes. But the fines issued to employers are too low, he insists, to be much of a deterrent.

Prompted by the disappointing levels of fines published in HSE's fourth annual Offences and Penalties report, Walker says, "It is incomprehensible that fines for especially serious big company breaches in health and safety are only a small percentage of those fines handed down for breaches of financial services in similarly large firms. I understand that financial service breaches can affect people's wealth and well-being, but breaches in health and safety can, and do, result in loss of limbs, livelihoods and lives."

He says that HSE had hoped the increase in last year's fines was the start of an upward trend, but "this has sadly not been the case. There has been no substantial change to reflect the seriousness of health and safety cases since the Court of Appeal said in 1998 that fines for health and safety were too low."

The HSE's Offences and Penalties report provides details of enforcement action for 2002-2003 and shows that 933 companies, organizations and individuals were convicted of health and safety violations.

HSE targets its efforts on those risks and industry sectors that give rise to most injuries, instances of illness and fatalities. Enforcement plays an important role in those actions, and the most serious violations face the toughest citations and fines.

The average fine for health and safety cases across the UK fell by 21 percent, from £11,141 (U.S. $18,624) in 2001-2002 to £8,828 (U.S. $14,757) in 2002-2003 - partly because there were fewer of the larger fines.

"The report shows the special attention HSE inspectors give to preventing serious risks in industries with poor records. Much of what HSE does is aimed at prevention, but enforcement has an essential part to play. In especially serious breaches, HSE will prosecute," Walker says.

A copy of the Offences and Penalties report can be downloaded from the HSE Web site at www.hse.gov.uk/enforce/off02-03.pdf.

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