Directors' duties around health and safety: a recap | Fieldfisher
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Directors' duties around health and safety: a recap


United Kingdom

Company directors have many duties, one of which is the continued responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the workplace. Duties around health and safety are primarily covered by the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HSAWA). Breaches of these duties, and therefore breaches of health and safety law, can constitute criminal offences and lead to lengthy investigations by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

In many cases these investigations result in convictions for both the company and, in some cases, individual directors. In the most serious of circumstances such as corporate manslaughter, breaches by individual directors can result in prison sentences.

Directors' personal liability for failures of health and safety: recent cases

In recent years there has been an increase in prosecutions bought against directors, especially when the health and safety breach results in a death. For example:

FDS Waste Services Limited

On 22nd December 2022, FDS Waste Services Limited ("FDS"), and its director Philip Pidgley, were convicted at trial for corporate manslaughter and failure to discharge their duty imposed by section 2(1) of HSAWA.  A worker was hit by a reversing shovel loader while sorting recycling materials in the yard and subsequently died. FDS were ordered to pay £700,000 in fines and costs, while Mr Pidgley was given a six month prison sentence, suspended for 12 months.

DH Willis & Sons Ltd

On 3rd March 2023, the directors of DH Willis & Sons Ltd, a family-run business in North Yorkshire, were convicted of failing to discharge the duty of general health, safety and welfare of an employee under section 2(1) of HSAWA, after a man died in an agricultural accident whilst working for the company. Both directors received suspended prison sentences. Timothy Willis received an 11 month prison sentence, suspended for two years, and Mark Willis received a 23 week suspended prison sentence.

Asbestos Bass Limited

On 10th March 2023, director Daniel Cockcroft received a six month prison sentence for breaches of section 37 of HSAWA. Asbestos Bass Limited intentionally removed asbestos from buildings, despite being under a prohibition notice preventing them working with any licensed asbestos materials. Daniel Cockcroft further pleaded guilty to fraud, having falsified training certificates and trade association logos. He received a further four month sentence, taking his total prison sentence to ten months.

Other sanctions for breach of duty

Sanctions for a breach of directors' duties are not just confined to prison sentences and fines; the courts have the power to disqualify directors who have been convicted of an offence related to the management of a company under section 2(1) of the Company Directors Disqualification Act 1986. This includes failures in relation to the management of the health and safety of a company, and is exercised at the discretion of the court without need for further investigation or evidence of the mismanagement.

Ensuring compliance: essential principles

Director's duties for health and safety are not solely for the safety of the workers, but also extend to protecting the safety of any other person impacted by the work being undertaken by the company. This includes contractors, agency workers and members of the public. Section 2(3) HSAWA requires employers to prepare and revise a written statement of the company's general policy with regards to health and safety, and the arrangements in place for the carrying out of that policy.

Directors can avoid these prosecutions and risks to both their reputation and company by taking proactive steps to address the health and safety of the workplace. It is not a defence to these breaches that a director has structured the health and safety responsibilities to be outside of their direct oversight, and most prosecutions come from a failure of the director to act.

A robust approach to health and safety in the workplace requires strong and active leadership from the top, for example raising health and safety at board meetings regularly. Regularly reviewing the policy , and systems of work ensures that best practice is used at all times, and that antiquated systems are bought up to date.

If you would like to discuss your health and safety responsibilities, whether as a director or health and safety advisor, please contact Andrew Sanderson.

With thanks to Legal Professional Kieran Tomlinson, co-author of this article.

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Areas of Expertise

Health and Safety