Health and safety law

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Health and safety law is a body of law that protects the health, safety and welfare of the general public and certain defined sectors of the population such as employees. Most jurisdictions have a framework of health and safety law which will usually be enforced by the state using an inspectorate, regulatory control and the criminal law.

The regulatory framework for health and safety will usually operate alongside a civil law system which would allow individuals to bring a lawsuit against a person, company or organization that may have been liable for personal injury or even death. Thus where an employee has been injured through an accident at work in the UK the Health & Safety Executive may instigate a criminal prosecution which may result in a financial penalty (fine) and now could result in imprisonment of those individuals responsible (Health and Safety {Offences} Act 2008)– however the injured employee can also seek damages for the injury caused in the civil courts under areas of civil law such as negligence and occupiers liability.

One example in the United States was the Station nightclub fire. In this incident, the Station nightclub caught fire on February 20, 2003, in West Warwick, Rhode Island, after the rock band Great White set off pyrotechnics which ignited the club’s highly flammable soundproofing. One hundred people, including one band member, died in the blaze. The band’s manager, Daniel Biechele, and club owners Jeffrey and Michael Derderian were each charged with 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter with criminal negligence and 100 counts of involuntary manslaughter in violation of a misdemeanor. Michael Derderian was sentenced to a four year jail sentence with eligibility for a work release program and Jeffrey Derderian received a suspended 10-year sentence and a community sentence while Biechele also received a prison sentence. In civil courts, more than $1 billion in claims have been made by the families of the dead and injured with defendants including the manufacturers of the soundproofing, the maker of the pyrotechnics, the band and the venue.

The regulatory framework in the UK only began to develop towards the end of the industrial revolution and clearly employers and business at the time had a vested interest to oppose legislation and regulatory control which might affect their business. But progressive societies clearly wish to protect their population and workforce and almost all now have comprehensive legislation. In the United States the law developed in a similar manner. For example In 1891 Congress passed the first federal statute governing mine safety, marking the beginning of what was to be an extended evolution of increasingly comprehensive federal legislation regulating mining activities. The 1891 law was relatively modest legislation that applied only to mines in U.S. territories, and, among other things, established minimum ventilation requirements at underground coal mines and prohibited operators from employing children under 12 years of age. But many would say that after a golden age of health and safety legislation there is now a major problem as legislation and regulation often does nothing to actually protect the public and employees, and indeed has led to the development of a compensation culture.

In the United Kingdom the primary legislation governing the enforcement of health and safety is the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974. Section 1 of the Act sets out the preliminary purposes of the act. These are for (i) securing the health, safety and welfare of persons at work and (ii) protecting others against risks to health and safety in connection with the activities of persons at work and (iii) for controlling and managing the use of dangerous substances and (iv) for controlling certain emissions into the atmosphere.

The European Union has instigated a series of Directives in the field of health and safety which must be brought into domestic legislation by all the member countries within agreed time limits. Recent Directives cover noise at work, the manual handling of loads, carcinogens and biological agents.

A waste disposal, construction and demolition company has been fined £20,000 after an employee was run over by a dumper truck. The company pleaded guilty to contravening s2(1) of HSWA by failing to ensure the safety of an employee, it was also ordered to pay full costs of £6,580. Gloucester Crown Court was told that the incident occurred on 9 August 2004 at a waste transfer station in Gloucester, where rubbish is brought by skips and lorries for recycling or landfill. A dumper truck being driven out of the waste transfer station struck the man as he stood with his back to the doors, running him over and fracturing his pelvis and femur. The driver had been unable to see the supervisor, as the truck had a high load of wooden pallets in the bucket at the front, and he was coping with changes in light between the two areas. In mitigation, the company said it had put a lot of work and investment into health and safety since the incident. The court was told that this incident was the third for which the company had been prosecuted in the last two years. Its construction division was fined £5,000 in January 2005 after an untrained worker overturned a dumper truck while reversing it without wearing a seatbelt, breaking his leg. Its demolition division was fined £12,500 in September 2005 after an untrained and unsupervised operative fell through a fragile roof.

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