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First corporate manslaughter conviction prompts warnings

Construction companies that have scaled back during the economic crisis must tighten up workplace safety or risk falling foul of the corporate manslaughter legislation, health and safety lawyers have warned.

The caution was sounded after Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings last week became the first company to be convicted of corporate manslaughter following the death of engineer Alexander Wright in a trail pit collapse on one of its sites on 5 September 2008.

Law firm Eversheds, which has 22 specialist health and safety lawyers, said it had noticed some construction clients were recently “taking more risks than usual with workplace safety”, but could not reveal numbers.

Eversheds solicitor-advocate Paul Verrico told Construction News: “Many companies have downscaled their safety departments and reduced their training spend. The [Cotswold] sentence will remind such companies that taking risks with people’s lives can have calamitous results both from an individual, ethical and corporate perspective.”

CGH was convicted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 at Winchester Crown Court last Tuesday and ordered to pay a fine of £385,000 in 10 yearly instalments.

Beachcroft health and safety partner Andrew Stokes said the case demonstrated that smaller companies with hands-on directors and simpler management structures remain “particularly exposed to the risk of prosecution”.

According to Osborn Abas Hunt partner Madeleine Abas, the case is a “timely reminder” of companies over-relying on the experience of employees as an alternative to consciously designing, embedding and enforcing safe systems of work.

She said: “In my experience many sections of construction, especially small and medium-size contractors in the supply chain, operate on the basis that the foreman, who often has decades of experience, is left to determine how a gang will work on site, and it is organisations in which this happens that are most at risk of a conviction for such a serious offence as corporate manslaughter.”

But Craig McAdam, a solicitor at law firm Russell Jones and Walker, said the real test of the act would come when a significantly larger company is prosecuted. He said: “The Corporate Manslaughter Act enables prosecutors to go after senior managers straight up the management chain. Therefore we won’t see what the act can really do until a company with a significant management chain is brought to trial.”


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