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The health and safety of the environment is just as important as it is for people

A quick trawl of the internet, and it’s easy to see that the magnitude of environmental fines imposed on the construction industry to date bear little resemblance to the company’s ability to pay, the amount of damage caused, or the degree of neglect that led to the incident. 

As a result some within the industry have yet to completely accept the cultural change needed to make the UK construction industry fully environmentally conscious. Don’t get me wrong, we have come a long way, but there is still further to go until the old “least cost” attitude is replace by one focused on doing the right thing to protect the environment. 

A culture change that would stop large construction companies deciding to incur fines in the region of £30k for repeatedly contaminating surface watercourses with silt, rather than incurring the full cost of treatment to an appropriate standard before discharge. 

However, all this about to change, not as a result of a fundamental mindset change within the construction industry, but as result of  new guidelines published by the Sentencing Council on the imposition of fines for breaching environmental legislation. Importantly the environmental legislation has not changed and the underlying philosophy of “the polluter pays” still stands. However what is different is that the new guidance now endeavours to provide a framework for establishing the magnitude of the fine, and this takes into account not only the severity of the incident and the culpability of management, but also the size of the organisation.  The underlying principle is one of imposing “equal financial pain”, with larger companies incurring proportionately higher fines than smaller ones.

From July onwards, fines for breaching environmental legislation will be based on a matrix type approach taking into account:

  • the severity of the incident - ranging from a category 1 (severe) down to category 4 (near miss)
  • the culpability of management - ranging from “low to no culpability” (for example where the incident was the result of accident or action of a rogue employee) through to “deliberate” where there was an intentional or flagrant breach of the law by those in a position of responsibility
  • the size of the organisation – ranging from micro (less than £2M turnover) to large (greater than £50M turnover).

Under the new guidelines, a large construction company whose management allows the repeated discharge silt to a surface watercourse are now likely to be fined at least £450k instead of the £30k historically imposed.  
Although the industry has come a long way in improving health and safety for construction workers, it still has further to go in improving health and safety for the environment before the widely quoted objective of causing zero harm can be achieved. A journey that will, from the beginning of July onwards, be driven as much by financial risk as by the industry’s desire to extend health and safety beyond the workforce into the surrounding environment.  

  • Richard Coulton is chief executive officer at Siltbuster 

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