On the 15th February 2011 the first conviction under the Corporate Manslaughter Act of 2007 reached its completion. The case saw Gloucestershire-based firm Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings convicted for the death of Alex Wright, a 27 year-old geologist killed in a collapsed trench site near Stroud. The company was deemed to have allowed the geologist to work in a dangerously unsecured deep trench and was fined, three days later, the sum of £385,000.
This case follows the completion of the Sentencing Guidelines consultation which reached its climax on January 5, 2010, and which may now mean that more companies, of all types, are prosecuted, be it for death by negligence, or simple Health and Safety offences. Their punishments will be wide ranging, the guidelines stating that unlimited fines are allowed, and even simple Health and Safety violations will attract penalties of £100,000 or more. In addition, the court might also impose a remedial or publicity order, forcing the company to address the management failings leading to the incident, or to make public details surrounding the proceedings.
The conviction marks the first shot across the bow from newly implemented legislation which looks set to have a significant impact on, in particular, the construction industry where danger is an ever-present concern.
In this instance, Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings had a duty of care to Mr Alex Wright and his death constitutes a gross dereliction of this duty. Long established industry guidance forbids entry into excavations more than 1.2 metres deep. In convicting the company, the jury concluded that the system of work in digging trial pits was exceptionally and unnecessarily dangerous. The company ignored industry guidelines and allowed employees to enter trenches over 3 metres in depth.
It is an unfortunate coincidence that the worst hit industry will also be one that is already suffering the most: an excessively harsh winter helped to deliver growth figures for construction of -4.7% in the first quarter of 2011 (Office of National Statistics (ONS)), despite overall GDP growth of 0.5%.
These are figures already compounded by the Health and Safety Executive, who continue to prosecute private developers and industry corporations alike for a wide range of health and safety offences.
Time will tell what effect this legislation will have on an unfortunately flagging industry, but doubtless lessons will be learnt after the conviction of Cotswold Geotechnical. Health and Safety measures should be tightened up and a more cautious approach to construction will be adopted, especially by smaller companies with the potential to be crippled by heavy fines. In this case, overheads may rise as contractors increase their site preparations and safety costs, implementing additional checks. We might then see an inflation of building charges or a further decline in the amount of work being carried out.
Regardless of the cost, however, it is hoped by many that the consequences of this case help to significantly reduce needless deaths in one of the nation’s most dangerous industries.