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Health and safety: Another fine mess for small businesses?

Health and safety has long had a bit of an image problem amongst small business owners.

Speak to a room full of owner-managers and the majority will admit to seeing the rules on workplace safety as, well, a bit of a pain in the neck. The consensus seems to be that health and safety laws simply represent more red tape and box-ticking to worry about.

Tabloid newspaper articles citing ludicrous (and often untrue) examples of ‘health and safety gone mad’ don’t help.

The regulations may seem like another layer of bureaucracy getting in the way of creating a successful business, but surely everyone can agree that their fundamental aim – namely to keep people safe – is worthwhile?

So why should business owners care about health and safety? Firstly, there is the reputational damage that a breach can cause. Any company will find it harder to attract and retain high-calibre staff after its name has gone through the mud of a serious safety lapse.

Secondly, there are very real punishments that can be dished out to any business found to be in breach.

In fact, strict new sentencing guidelines billed as the biggest change to health and safety laws in a generation should be enough to make even the most dubious business owner sit up and take notice.

New health and safety sentencing guidelines 2016

The guidelines, which came into force on 1st February 2016, have introduced new, increased fines and punishments for organisations convicted of health and safety, corporate manslaughter and food safety and hygiene offences.

Smaller businesses found guilty could be hit with fines in excess of 10% of their annual turnover.

The guidelines also lower the threshold for potential imprisonment. Negligent actions that put people at risk could result in any employee or director being jailed.

The Sentencing Council says the guidelines will ensure “fair and proportionate sentences for those who cause death or injury to their employees and the public or put them at risk”.

Critics, however, have warned of a serious financial impact on small businesses – even if no incident has taken place.

That’s because the emphasis when deciding sentences is now ‘risk-based’ rather than ‘outcome-based’.

This means that punishment will now be based on the risk of harm created – with harsher penalties if actual harm occurred.

‘Small businesses could be finished off’

Peter Bennett, a solicitor at law firm Roythornes, said: “These new guidelines put the bar much higher than before when it comes to fines for health and safety breaches.

“As a result businesses may think about increasing their spending in this area in order to stave off the threat of high fines, in turn cutting into profit margins and potentially stifling investment.

“Small businesses that do run in to trouble, meanwhile, may find the level of fine they receive could finish them off altogether.

“All in all it means that it’s more vital than ever that businesses are prepared and health and safety aware.

“The days of businesses cost-cutting on health and safety anticipating that fines will be manageable are a thing of the past.”

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