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Scrivener calls on engineers to assess risks

ENGINEERS SHOULD carry out a full risk assessment of all the business they carry out if the proposed new law on corporate manslaughter is adopted. That is the advice of Anthony Scrivener QC, who gave the annual Symonds Safety Lecture at the ICE last week.

Government proposals for the new offence are out for consultation and could become law before the next election.

Scrivener said: 'If these proposals become law then both companies and individuals who are part of the management will be far more vulnerable to charges of manslaughter in the future.'

Breaking the law could result in an unlimited fine for a company and imprisonment for individuals if it is proved that a management failure within the company resulted in a death.

Scrivener said: 'Any employee of a company whose job description includes safety will need to know precisely what is going on.'

Momentum has been growing for a new offence of corporate manslaughter since the mid1980s, when a series of public enquiries into fatal disasters unveiled failures in management systems. At the public enquiry into the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, Mr Justice Sheen said: 'From top to bottom the body corporate was infected with the disease of sloppiness.'

Similar sentiments were later expressed at the enquiries into the King's Cross fire, Piper Alpha disaster and Clapham Junction and Southall rail crashes.

The public has also become increasingly disaffected with the behaviour of senior managers in large organisations. Scrivener told the audience: 'Directors and management are perceived by the public as fat cats at the top of the pile earning large salaries for running an incompetent organisation which had lead to the death of many innocent people.'

Another incentive for the new law, according to Scrivener, is a realisation by prosecuting authorities that criminal sanctions are the only real method of ensuring that employers provide a safe system for their employees and the public at large. He said: 'There is no doubt the law of this country in the area of criminal negligence has dragged behind other companies.'

Under the existing law, individuals can be prosecuted for manslaughter, but Scrivener said the wrong people may have been taking the rap. 'At long last there is the realisation that imprisoning an employee who made a mistake through human frailty and which was clearly foreseeable is not sufficient. The reason for making the mistake has to be examined and it is for the management to make the system failsafe against the possibility of a foreseeable mistake.'

Scrivener's advice included:

have arrangements in place for obtaining immediate legal advice;

do not allow yourself to give ill informed answers to questions - you should refuse to answer questions if you need to check with documents to ensure accuracy; and if possible, have a conference with counsel as soon as you can.

He warned the audience; 'In any organisation delegation is inevitable and necessary but where negligence is concerned you could be liable for the acts or omissions of your delegates.'

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