Engineering firms should establish health and safety audits to avoid the accusations facing the first company to be charged under the Corporate Manslaughter Act 2007, experts said this week.
Winchester Crown Court heard last week that Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings (CGH) failed to enforce rules in its own health and safety policy.
The prosecution said CGH failed to enforce safety rules written in its own guidance 1992 that applied to a 3.8m deep unsupported trial pit, which collapsed and buried junior geotechnical engineer Alexander Wright in September 2008 (news last week).CGH is charged with causing Wright’s death.
“It will be a massive wake-up call for companies. Do you really want to find yourself in the position of [CGH director Peter Eaton]?”
John Carpenter , SCOSS
Standing Committee on Structural Safety (SCOSS) chair John Carpenter said the case will jolt engineering firms into action over their health and safety arrangements. “It will be a massive wake-up call for companies,” he said. “Do you really want to find yourself in the position of [CGH director Peter Eaton]?”
Too many companies establish health and safety rules and then let them go unenforced, said Carpenter.
“There are a lot of companies that have the procedures and then sit back and think that’s taken care of. Unless they’re being reviewed and audited senior management don’t know whether they’re being enforced.”
Failure to adapt
That might have been acceptable “decades ago”, he said, “but not now”.
Mark Ellison QC, prosecuting, told the court that Eaton trained as an engineer in the 1970s but had updated his working practices little since then, and had “failed to adapt” to new health and safety thinking.
Legal firm Davies Arnold Cooper partner Fiona Gill said the trial shows that health and safety management could make or break a company’s future.
“A conviction under the Act could threaten the future of small companies, so it is imperative that companies have robust procedures in place.”
Fiona Gill, Davies Arnold Cooper
“The penalties for a conviction under the Act are severe,” she said. “They can be hit with an unlimited fine and there are other sanctions available including publicity orders.” These orders could compel companies to publicise their conviction to shareholders and customers (NCE 16 February 2010).
“Clearly, a conviction under the Act could threaten the future of small companies, so it is imperative that companies have robust procedures in place in place to prevent accidents,” said Gill.
She said the case will give limited insight into how the new law could be applied to larger companies, but Carpenter said those firms must be equally vigilant.
“Big companies should not think it doesn’t apply to them,” he said. CGH had just eight employees at the time of the accident.
Ellison said Eaton told police investigators that “little” had changed in trial pitting practices since his training, but when asked how he kept abreast of health and safety legislation changes Eaton said: “I expect largely speaking we failed miserably.”
“I expect largely speaking we failed miserably.”
Peter Eaton, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings
British Standards dating from 1981 said that “where personnel will enter a pit it is essential that the sides are safe, particularly against sudden collapse”.
Laboratory worker Alex McIver, a colleague of Wright’s, told the court this week that Wright must have believed the trial pit was safe to enter.
“I would have assumed he would have known the risks himself. He had more experience in that sort of thing,” McIver said.
CGH denies that it unlawfully killed Wright. The trial continues, with the defence expected to begin later today or tomorrow, in front of Justice Field.