Company Culture Will Be At The Centre Of Court Probe Into First Corporate Manslaughter Prosecution, Say Top Lawyer And Leading Union Officer

(LAWFUEL)- BSC conference examines the responsibilities on directors to prevent injury and ill-health to their workers and the consequences of failing to act or getting it wrong

Directors should be aware that any prosecutions under the new health and safety legislation could find the courts examining the entire safety culture of a business, and not just the systems and management processes in place. That was the stark warning from leading health and safety law specialist and barrister with Henderson Chambers, Oliver Campbell and GMB National Health and Safety officer Dan Shears at the British Safety Council’s recent Director’s Duties Conference in London.

An audience of almost one hundred board-level directors, senior managers, health and safety practitioners, policy makers and regulators heard BSC’s chairman Nina Wrightson and chief executive Brian Nimick, together with former chair of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC, now merged with HSE) Sir Bill Callaghan leading lawyers, directors, an academic and a trade union official examine existing legal obligations on directors concerning health and safety and share their knowledge and experience of the benefits that visible and active leadership brings.

Brian Nimick, BSC’s Chief Executive, drew the important lessons coming out of the conference: “BSC is determined to play a full part in promoting director responsibility and leadership on health and safety; we are in this for the long term. Let’s be clear that the subject of directors’ duties is not the fashion of the moment, rather one of the essential building blocks of good health and safety, without which we face the risk of ever increasing workplace injury and ill-health. If culture is important, then good leadership is the key architect.”

Oliver Campbell said: “Failings of senior management will be seen as a substantial element of any breach in the duty of care owed by an organisation to the deceased. The jury must also consider whether there were attitudes, policies, systems or accepted practices in the organisation that were likely to have encouraged the failure. The ‘attitudes’ aspect is one that we need to be careful of: directors should be able to show that their culture is one of encouraging optimal safety in addition to rules and policies.”

Sir Bill Callaghan recognised that pressure had grown in recent years to make boards of directors responsible for the consequences of fatal and serious accidents with calls for further legislation.

Sir Bill said: “I do think that part of that growing pressure for action to be taken against both the corporate bodies and individual directors is that some companies, and I emphasise some, have not behaved properly. After a fatal accident there is a basic human need for the bereaved to have an explanation as to why their love on died, an apology and an assurance that what has happened to their loved on should not happen to anyone else. I hope the pressure can be maintained to see leadership on health and safety as an essential part of leadership full stop.”

Sir Bill went on to urge directors to familiarise themselves with the IoD/HSE guidance, Leading health and safety at work and follow the principles set out. “Every board in the land and every Director should have a copy and they should be applying the approach. Every safety rep should have a copy too and be challenging their employers to show that they are adopting the guidance.”

The GMB National Health and Safety Office Dan Shears agreed:

“HSE reviews of fatal accidents found that in approximately 70 per cent of cases, ‘positive action by management could have saved lives’. The same study found 15 per cent of cases were caused by worker behaviour, and the other 15 per cent by joint failings. Investigation by companies into root causes suggests management systems failure could cause more than 90 per cent of incidents. However the tools to avert this are there – three key principles of strong and active leadership; worker involvement; and assessment and review are all crucial to reducing death and injury rates. We can all play our part.”

BSC organised the conference recognising that recent changes in the law concerning corporate manslaughter and increased penalties for health and safety offences have resulted in boards of directors, both executive and non-executive, needing to better understand the full extent of their individual and corporate liability should death, injury or ill-health occur in their organisation. Equally importantly, BSC was keen to use the conference to illustrate successful approaches that the directors of Rok plc and CE Electric had adopted and the benefits this had brought. Both demonstrated a culture of strong leadership at the top.

At the conference BSC announced that it had commenced work on the development of an on-line tool to help equip directors – executive and non executive – in all organisations of all sizes in the private, public and voluntary sectors, with the skills and competence necessary to help assure themselves that risks to health and safety within their organisation were being properly controlled.

BSC will also continue its work in equipping directors and senior managers with the skills and competence essential to the good management of health and safety within their organisation through its popular programme of one day courses.

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