More safety red tape will hamper growth says industry body

An industry body is warning small businesses to put in place stringent health and safety procedures, following a legal change that could leave them facing up to two years in prison...

On Friday, 16 January, the Health and Safety Offences Act 2008 came into force. The effect of the Act, which does not apply to offences committed before it came into force, is to:

•      Raise the maximum fine, which may be imposed in the lower courts to £20,000 for most health and safety offences.

Give both the higher and lower courts the option to imprison employers for a greater number of offences.

Make certain offences, which previously could only be tried in the lower courts, triable in both the lower and higher courts.

The maximum fine that can be imposed in the higher courts remains unlimited. The Chairperson of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Judith Hackett, said the Act imposed no additional duties on small businesses, which comply with health and safety law. She championed the legal change as a ‘real deterrent’ to businesses which fail to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously.

“We will retain the important safeguards that ensure that our inspectors use their powers sensibly and proportionately,” said Hackett. “We will continue to target those who knowingly cut corners, put lives at risk and who gain commercial advantage over competitors by failing to comply with the law.”

She insisted: “HSE is not changing its approach to how it enforces health and safety law.”

However, the FPB is concerned that HSE is indeed wielding the stick, believing business-owners need to be forced to comply. Instead, the FPB believes that they are most in need of information, guidance and support to help them negotiate the complexities of health and safety law, in addition to reviewing support for businesses struggling to comply with existing regulations, following the Government's pledge in August 2008 to impose ‘budgets’ on new legislation.

Recent research carried out for Referendum, the FPB’s quarterly survey of members, revealed that the burden of health and safety regulations is the most significant barrier to the growth of small businesses. They were voted for by 63 per cent of respondents, ahead of employment law (61 per cent), other legislation (60 per cent), fuel costs (55 per cent) and tax (54 per cent).

In order to help business-owners understand health and safety law, the FPB publishes a Health & Safety Guide written specifically for owners and managers of smaller firms. The Guide is updated annually – the next version is due out in late March 2009 – to take account of changes in law, and covers general and sector-specific health and safety regulations, and includes a range of risk assessment and other forms. The Guide's ‘comply-as-you-complete’ format ensures the business-owner can stay fully up to date with the law.

The FPB’s Health and Safety Adviser, Martin Mulholland, believes health and safety breaches are now being treated as seriously as other criminal offences. He urged small businesses not to take shortcuts on their health and safety policies and procedures in order to reduce costs in the economic downturn.

“For those companies which are already committing sufficient resources to ensuring their operations are undertaken in ways that are safe, and without risk to the health and safety of their employees and others who may be affected, there should be no undue concern over the impact that the new Act will have on their businesses,” Mulholland reassured business-owners. “The FPB’s Health & Safety Guide acts as a good starting point for companies wishing to establish a cost-effective health and safety management system.”

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