We hear a lot about employers, even the odd company director, being prosecuted for health and safety offences but have you ever wondered if employees get convicted? Well, this is certainly a possibility. Section 7 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 allows for employees to be prosecuted for failing to take reasonable care of themselves and others, or for failing to cooperate with their employer’s arrangements for health and safety.
While in many cases employees who commit health and safety offences may be dismissed from their jobs, there are those occasions when serious matters come to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), who may then decide to take action. If convicted, employees can face a range of punishments, ranging from suspended sentences and conditional discharges to community service, substantial fines, all the way up to a maximum of 2 years imprisonment.
Recently, an employee at a potato storage warehouse lifted an apprentice electrician 4 metres above the ground to carry out electrical repairs. The apprentice was lifted in a box balanced on the forks of a forklift truck – an obviously unsafe and irresponsible practice. The apprentice fell, breaking his ribs and puncturing a lung.
The HSE investigation showed that the employer had carried out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment and had supplied suitable equipment to work at height. However, employees had failed to use the supplied equipment, and the action points within the risk assessment were not followed.
It is important to realise that BOTH the employer and the employee have duties under the 1974 Act. If either or both of them fail to meet the required standard then they run the risk of being prosecuted. This risk increases if someone is harmed, as happened in this case – it just so happened that the employer was able to satisfy the HSE that it had done what was required, leaving the employee to face prosecution alone.