Recent years have seen an increased emphasis upon Health and Safety across all sectors, creating the risk of adverse publicity and criminal enforcement action.
Significant fines are being imposed
Cases reported in recent months demonstrate the significant fines now routinely imposed.
- On 12 March 2020, a hotel was fined £220,000 for a variety of safety related breaches initially uncovered during a food hygiene inspection.
- On 4 March 2020, a poultry processing company received a fine of £300,000 following an incident where an employee’s thumb was severed.
- On 11 February 2020 Tesco was fined over £700,000 following an incident in which a shopper slipped and broke their leg on water leaking from a refrigeration unit.
Whilst the level of fine will reflect the size of the organisation, as well as the severity of the incident, businesses of any size are at risk of significant penalties if they are prosecuted for a breach of its health and safety obligations.
Health and safety regulations
Depending on their operations, co‑operatives may also have to comply with a number of health and safety regulations, relating, for example, to the control of hazardous substances or the maintenance of lifting equipment. A key step for any Board is to understand exactly what those obligations are, noting that these may change as its operations do.
Any co‑operative will have inherent operational risks that it cannot avoid, and which may (if improperly controlled) lead to health and safety breaches; a food store cannot avoid spillages and a farm cannot avoid moving machinery. Boards can act to mitigate these risks most effectively by taking clear responsibility for Health and Safety – but how do Boards do this when they are often not best placed to manage the risks on a day‑to‑day basis?
Whilst accepting that ultimate responsibility will always rest with them, Boards should delegate the responsibility for producing policies and implementing health and safety controls on a day‑to‑day basis to appropriate individuals within the co‑operative.
The priority is ensuring that the right person is appointed to the right job; recognising where there are gaps in the Board’s expertise and hiring employees or engaging external consultants with the experience to identify and minimise risks.
Boards will, however, need to monitor this implementation and understand when changes to controls and policies are required. This monitoring can be completed through internal reporting (for example, a monthly report issued to the Board stating the number and types of incidents that are occurring) and through external validation (through auditing or seeking external expert advice on new developments).
Whilst some liability may be passed on to individuals who have failed to meet the required standards, the Board is ultimately responsible for the failures of those they have appointed to act on its behalf.
Regulators are unlikely to be sympathetic towards Boards who only act when it is necessary or who fail to hold individuals to account where responsibility has been delegated; the Board’s role should be on‑going and supportive.
Boards must also lead from the top in relation to the importance they place on health and safety. If done correctly, this can provide the foundation for a positive health and safety culture which is embodied by every person that represents the co‑operative:
- Employees should feel that they can tell their line managers when they feel unsafe, or regarding any recurring or novel risks that they are facing.
- Boards may need to consider anonymous reporting or whistleblowing mechanisms, to ensure that concerns are not blocked by line managers or within teams which have become isolated from the wider co‑operative.
- Performance reviews which include a 360 degree feedback system can help to flush out concerns that may otherwise not reach the Board.
Within a poor health and safety culture, incidents are not reported, and concerns are not raised; this can lead to significant risks being undervalued, or even unknown by the Board. This is a clear indication that Boards cannot consider their health and safety tasks in isolation – each contributes to and benefits the completion of others.
Boards need to therefore have a comprehensive and rounded approach to their roles in relation to health and safety; but with technology improving, work practices changing and new risks arising, this approach must also be regularly reviewed and flexible.