In the UK over 400,000 people have been killed in work-related circumstances since 1966 and globally more people are killed each year at work than in wars.
Very few corporate manslaughter prosecutions are however successful. Under current legislation, it has to be proved that all the required gross negligence can be found in at least one senior company officer or director which is extremely difficult in larger organisations.
On April 6th the new Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act will come into force. For the first time, companies and organisations can be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures resulting in a gross breach of a duty of care. The courts will now be able to consider the wider corporate picture, looking at the actions, or more appropriately, the failings of the company’s senior management.
One could argue that the new Act will not have a significant impact on improving health and safety management in the UK. Obviously, organisations should place the highest priority on ensuring the health, safety and welfare of all employees and those affected by its activities but this principle is already underpinned by extensive health and safety laws. There is a danger that this new Act will add a new layer of legal process that might serve to confuse rather than clarify.
Whilst the new legislation should make it easier to convict culpable organisations, there is also the possibility that it may inadvertently create a blame culture within companies where there has been a health and safety failure that results in death. The Act's focus on identifying senior management failure may make those involved so guarded in giving their accounts of the facts that it will become more difficult to establish where we can learn vital lessons from and how and why fatal accidents occur.
It will be interesting to see the progress of future prosecutions.