Gerard Forlin, a barrister specialising in workplace death, said clampdowns on institutional safety failings were rising.
Speaking to an audience of senior businessmen at a seminar for the Institute of Directors, Forlin said: ‘Since Lord Cullin’s report into the Paddington public inquiry, any time there is an accident or near miss – remember the Heath and Safety at Work Act triggers at the point of risk – it is no longer just the front line operator, train driver, pilot, company car driver, air traffic controller who carries the can for it.
‘He or she can now be seen as a ‘victim’ and the focus is now on how his or her error should have been taken out by risk assessment and to what extent it is a system failure.’ Careful examination of each case often leads investigators to the top of a firm which perhaps has not done all it could to ensure its workers were safe.
Forlin said the procedural impact on large companies was already changing as fines are ramped up.
Before August this year, £2 million was the highest fine paid, for the Paddington rail crash.
In August, TransCo was fined £15 million, and in October 2005 there was a combined fine of £13.5 million for those deemed responsible for the Hatfield derailment.
Forlin said: ‘Handling more than 30 fatalities a year, I’ve witnessed a complete shift in approach with directors being prosecuted individually in growing numbers as experts are brought in to explain why a mistake was made in the first place.
‘And, once a company or organisation has lost a reputation, it’s very difficult to get it back.’