Employers who fail to ensure the health and safety of their workers can expect to receive financial penalties that are designed to hurt. In one case that proved the point, a security company that exposed its staff to a grave risk of contracting Legionnaires disease was fined £1.8 million.
A local authority launched an investigation after one the company’s employees fell ill with the potentially fatal condition, which is generally caused by inhaling bacteria in tiny droplets of water. Air conditioning and washroom facilities are favourable environments for the bug to breed.
It could not be established with certainty that the man had become infected at work, but investigators uncovered numerous failures by the company to maintain its water-based systems. Monitoring and testing of the systems was erratic and staff had received inadequate training. Despite extensive guidance and advice from the council and health and safety consultants, there were no up-to-date policies or suitable and sufficient risk assessments in place.
The company received the financial penalty, and was also ordered to pay £33,700 in prosecution costs, after it pleaded guilty to two offences contrary to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. In challenging the fine before the Court of Appeal, the company pointed out that significant improvements had since been made to its premises, which were now considered to be a model of their kind. It was not the case that it did not care about its employees’ welfare.
In dismissing the appeal, however, the Court noted that the level of culpability was extremely high and that the breaches were flagrant. The company had an annual turnover of about £250 million, employing 200 staff at the relevant premises alone, and the penalty imposed could not be viewed as manifestly excessive.