The prosecution, arising from the Hatfield rail crash, has been running for several months. For the first time prosecutors had targeted middle management for apparent failings in the organisation’s health and safety culture.
Historically, to secure a corporate manslaughter conviction, it has been necessary to identify a single individual with the ‘guilty mind’ – that is a person whose gross negligence resulted in a fatality.
Understandably, it has always been very difficult to find one person within an organisation with such responsibility, unless, of course, they hold a managerial responsibility, such as a fleet manager or health and safety manager.
It is not rocket science to work out that in the event of a fatal accident involving a fleet driver, these individuals are high on the police list of people to speak to.
I have often said that these managers have an X-factor – they are expendable if the organisation is prosecuted for corporate manslaughter. You can imprison a manager but not the organisation which employs them.
So why is the outcome of the Hatfield prosecution so important?
In the event of a successful prosecution of a manager, no-one in middle management would have been safe. The fact that the prosecution could not make the corporate manslaughter charge stick means that the fleet industry can breathe a sigh of relief.
The prospect of an individual, rather than the organisation, being prosecuted in the future must now be regarded as remote, unless of course that manager has been ‘grossly negligent’ when measured against current health and safety standards.
Although Balfour Beatty and Railtrack have successfully defended the corporate manslaughter charge, they are still facing a charge of breaching existing health and safety law. This could possibly give rise to a six-figure fine as a warning to other organisations to adopt a more responsible attitude to health and safety.
One inevitable outcome of the Hatfield prosecution is that the Corporate Manslaughter Bill, which is presently awaiting Parliamentary approval, is likely to receive an accelerated passage and could well be with us by the end of the year. This will bring into stark focus any management failings in the handling of health and safety issues and will target senior management at director level.
So are fleet managers completely off the hook?
The answer is ‘probably’, but to improve your chances of survival, please ensure that you have at least started the process of risk management.
There is always the risk of being investigated by a police officer carrying his investigation of road death manual and the Health and Safety Executive guide to managing work-related road safety. If you have done something constructive on assessing and managing the risk – rather than merely buying a disjointed bag of off-the-peg solutions which merely scratch the surface – it may just help you to sleep better.