Imprisonment and huge fines on the table for joinery workers and businesses flouting Health & Safety law

13 January 2016

New sentencing guidelines and an occupational ill health clampdown could be extremely expensive for neglectful joinery businesses with HSE's inspection invoices for breaches of Health & Safety law rising almost 50% and new guidance setting severe punishments for H&S offenders.

What are the new sentencing guidelines?

In a bid to provide a more universal system that punishes the worst offenders, the Sentencing Council has now published definitive guidelines for sentences relating to health and safety offences and corporate manslaughter. The guidelines will come into force in courts on 1 February 2016 and will apply to any case sentenced on or after that date.

The new guidelines consider the risk of harm caused, as well as offender culpability, meaning that company directors found to have been consenting or neglectful in relation to a Health & Safety offence could face potentially unlimited fines and prison sentences of up to two years. A lower threshold for imprisonment could also lead to more directors, managers and junior employees being handed custodial sentences.

The guidelines require the court to take into account the size of the organisation when determining the sentence, with company turnover used to determine the starting point of the fine.  The increased levels of fine will hit businesses of all sizes - those with a turnover of more than £50 million which could face fines of up to £10 million for health and safety offences and £20 million for corporate manslaughter.

So this is OK, as long as I don’t end up in court?

No. There is already a scheme in place under The Health and Safety (Fees) Regulations 2012, meaning that if your workplace is in ‘material breach’ of health and safety laws you are liable for recovery of the HSE’s costs for any inspection, investigation and enforcement action that is undertaken. A ‘material breach’ occurs when the HSE issues a notification of contravention, an improvement or prohibition notice, or a prosecution. This scheme is called Fee For Intervention (FFI) and HSE charge £124 per hour (UPDATE: As of 1st April 2016, FFI charges have been increased 5% to £129/hr).

Here are some example costs provided by the HSE:
-    Inspection resulting in an email or letter: £750
-    Inspection resulting in a notice being issued: £1,500
-    Investigation taking 4 days: £4,000
-    Full investigation: could be tens of thousands


The latest figures show that in the October 2015 invoice run, which covers notices of contravention issued in June and July, the HSE sent 3060 invoices for a total of £2.36 million.

Why should this concern joinery manufacturers more than before?

With HSE having had its budget cut by 35% in the last few years, they consider it a poor use of public resources to inspect comparatively lower risk premises, such as offices.

Joinery businesses in general will continue to be a prime target as the sector is considered by HSE to be of higher risk. We have it on good authority that HSE intends to undertake inspections at all woodworking establishments. The bulk of FFI invoices are issued to manufacturing businesses (£887,000 in October 2015) and the construction sector (£609,000). Although we do not have joinery industry statistics, we can report by way of example that one in three construction sites visited generates an FFI invoice.

The average invoice under FFI has, with some fluctuations, risen considerably since the scheme was launched, with current invoices now 50% higher. In January 2013 the average cost of a single FFI invoice was £513.15, in September 2014 it stood at £599.82 with the latest average costs reported by the HSE (October 2015) up to £755.11.

How can I reduce the risk of accidents, expensive charges or court appearances

In short, the safest approach is to follow BWF and HSE’s advice and comply with the law. Not only does a robust health and safety regime mean you avoid prosecution and FFI, you also benefit from a safer and more productive workplace. All joinery companies need to ensure they have the legally required Health & Safety precautions in place, including PPE, regular LEV testing (including spray booths & Portable systems for use on power hand tools), appropriate first aid provisions, full risk assessments and lung function testing if necessary.

HSE identifies 4 general areas to illustrate what might trigger FFI charges:

Health risks – exposure to harmful substances such as dust, fumes and chemicals or energy such as noise or vibration
Safety risks – where potential effects are immediate due to traumatic injury, eg. contact with moving machinery, falls from height, contact with vehicles
Welfare breaches – requirements that are part of the controls required for health risks, or a basic right of people in a modern society
Management of health and safety risks – capability to manage risks to a sustainable, acceptable level

Those who are concerned that they are unprepared for an inspection visit are reminded that they can access comprehensive support from the BWF ‘Toolkit’, which includes our Health & Safety member helpline and publications on what the inspectors are looking for including HSE Field Operations Directorate Guidance for proactive inspections, and the Health and Safety essentials checklist. These two Fee For Intervention guidance briefing notes are available through the website by logging in as a BWF member.

There is also free-to-members guidance on Health & Safety in the woodworking industry and documents such as Machine Safety Cards, sample inspection forms, and sample risk assessments.

Last but not least, pledge your support to the BWF Health & Safety Hero Campaign, where we have put together some excellent resources to help your business tackle problem areas such as wood dust, machine training, noise, manual and handling. All of which may help in avoiding potential costs of FFI and perhaps more importantly ensure the health and welfare of all employed in your joinery business!

Additionally you may wish to undertake a Health & Safety Audit that will not only suggest where your health and safety needs to be improved, but also how to achieve it. The BWF has negotiated exclusive rates with experienced Health & Safety advisors for a simple value for money package.

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