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New health and safety penalties come into force

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Businesses are being reminded that the penalties for breaking workplace health and safety laws have increased following the introduction of the Health and Safety Offences Act 2008.

The Act came into effect on 16 January and has made significant changes to the level of fines that can be imposed on employers found guilty of health and safety offences.

It has increased the maximum fine which may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences; given both the higher and lower courts the option to imprison employers for a greater number of offences; and made certain offences, which previously could only be tried in the lower courts, triable in both the lower and higher courts.

The maximum fine that can be imposed in the higher courts remains unlimited.

Judith Hackitt, the chairperson of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), pointed out that the new legislation doesn’t involve additional duties for small businesses which comply with health and safety law.

Instead, she argued that the Act was a deterrent to businesses that failed to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously.

Ms Hackitt said: “Our message to the many employers who do manage health and safety well is that they have nothing to fear from this change in law. There are no new duties on employers or businesses, and HSE is not changing its approach to how it enforces health and safety law.”

She insisted that the HSE will keep all the important safeguards that ensure that its inspectors use their powers sensibly and proportionately.

Ms Hackitt added: “We will continue to target those who knowingly cut corners, put lives at risk and who gain commercial advantage over competitors by failing to comply with the law. HSE is not changing its approach to how it enforces health and safety law.”

However, Martin Mulholland, the health and safety adviser at the Forum of Private Business (FPB), warned that health and safety breaches are now being treated as seriously as other criminal offences, and he urged small businesses not to take shortcuts on their health and safety policies and procedures in order to reduce costs in the economic downturn.

Mr Mulholland said: “For those companies which are already committing sufficient resources to ensuring their operations are undertaken in ways that are safe, and without risk to the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected, there should be no undue concern over the impact that the new Act will have on their businesses.”