Government is proposing to create new offences of corporate killing and killing by gross carelessness to make it easier to prosecute organisations after fatal accidents. At the moment it tends to be individuals who find themselves in the dock. But will the natural temptation to make corporations pay for management mistakes be of benefit to construction's health and safety record.
This week we ask: Is it appropriate only to prosecute a company rather than an individual in fatal accident cases?
The construction industry continues to put workers in potentially dangerous situations, and we in the industry have a huge responsibility.
Despite our efforts to eliminate hazards, we still have fatal accidents on sites.
Designers, engineers and architects have a duty to consider the risks during construction, operation, maintenance and subsequent demolition and, where possible, design them out. Contractors have to prepare safe working method statements and ensure these are implemented.
We often receive submissions from contractors that are very well prepared and include health and safety policy documents that say all the right things, and are usually signed by the managing director. I often wonder if they realise what they have signed up to on behalf of the company, or if they are just giving lip service to the policy.
It is important that a company takes ownership of health and safety and is seen to do so. The culture of health and safety must start at board level and permeate through management to the workforce.
When accidents happen there is often a weakness both in managing the risk and communicating with those carrying out operations. After an accident, the company must take responsibility and appropriate action.
The first duty is to the family and dependants of the deceased, who must be comforted and cared for. The immediate technical problems must be appraised and any dangers made safe.
The management regime has to be put under scrutiny and its board room culture and approach to health and safety examined. Where necessary, companies must be named and shamed.
Companies are quick to take credit for prestige projects, increased sales and profits.
They must also be willing to take responsibility for the health and safety of those who construct, use and maintain these projects.
I applaud the new legislation on corporate manslaughter with its proposals to prosecute companies. This will certainly focus attention on health and safety issues at board level. It will ensure that all levels of management are made aware of their legal obligations.
Zeebrugge, the Marchioness disaster, the Clapham, Southall, and Ladbroke Grove rail crashes have created a tidal wave of public demand for companies to be held accountable if management errors are the root cause of fatal accidents.
The introduction of offences of corporate killing and killing by gross carelessness will certainly make that inevitable.
Companies will no longer be able to hide behind the apparent absence of any high level 'directing mind' from the body corporate in the physical events which led to the deaths.
Now a 'management failure' will be enough to lay a company open to the new charges.
But while making the company an easy target will satisfy the desire for corporate accountability or revenge, it could do so at the expense of health and safety in the future.
People are alert to the fact that they could personally be prosecuted in the event of a fatal accident. We don't like it but it is causing us all to be more careful and contribute towards an increasingly positive safety culture. But if we think the company will become the corporate scapegoat, it may be tempting to take our foot off the pedal, hide behind the corporate veil and take risks on safety for rewards elsewhere.
The Crown Prosecution Service, the police and the Health & Safety Executive need to be alert to this. If the changes to the law are to have a positive effect then individuals - including those in the management chain - also need to be examined in fatal accident cases.
There is a joint responsibility for individuals and 'management' to encourage a safety culture, and the law needs to reflect that. If the balance between corporate and personal duties is correctly apportioned, public opinion will regard justice as being done.
After all, the threat of individual criminal sanctions remains one of the best methods for ensuring that we all provide a safe work environment for our employees and the public at large.
Home Secretary Jack Straw wants to introduce an offence of corporate killing to ensure that companies take health and safety issues more seriously.
New proposals from the Home Office and Law Commission could result in companies being found guilty of corporate manslaughter if death was found to have been caused by 'management failure'.
Among the proposals is a suggestion that individual directors should be disqualified or even imprisoned if found to have been ultimately responsible for a fatal accident.
In 1998/99 66 people died on construction sites. This amounts to 3.8 deaths per 100,000 employees.
The most dangerous industry is the agriculture, hunting, forestry and fishing sector, where there were 9.4 deaths per 100,000 employees in 1998/99.