The main law relating to health and safety is contained in the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. Beneath this lies an extensive set of Statutory Regulations. These place a very wide-ranging set of obligations on employers. Where the employer is a limited company then the starting point is that it is the company that will be liable for a breach of health and safety, typically in the form of a fine. These can now be very substantial and are typically linked to turnover.
Crucially, however, an individual director may personally be held criminally responsible for health and safety offences under Section 37 of the Act where:
Consent in this context means that the director had knowledge or awareness of the circumstances and the risks which caused the health and safety failure. Connivance means knowing about the risks but not doing anything about them.
A director who is found guilty of an offence can also be disqualified as a director under the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986.
In very serious cases a director may be prosecuted for manslaughter and a company may also now be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter (a new offence introduced in 2007). Prosecutions of company directors for manslaughter have been rare, principally because courts have often had difficulty in identifying the “controlling mind”. However, it is easier to do so in the case of smaller companies and such prosecutions are believed to be increasing.
The Health and Safety Executive (“HSE”), who are responsible for enforcing the Act have said that one of their main aims is to ensure that directors who fail in their responsibilities are held to account. HSE inspectors have been asked to consider the management chain and the role played in the events leading to an offence by individual directors and managers. This does mean that, where an offence has occurred, the HSE will, during their investigations, look at not only how the offence took place but also the organisational structure, roles and responsibilities and attitude to health and safety more generally within the company.
In practice it is very difficult for an individual director to have detailed knowledge of health and safety legislation (unless of course this is their particular responsibility) but there are two key things to look at: reporting and procedure: