Firms Warned of New Health and Safety Law; LEGAL FINANCE

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Byline: By John Duckers Business Editor

Midland firms were warned today that health and safety officials will be seeking a high profile "scalp" to drive home the implications of the new corporate manslaughter legislation which becomes law next year.

Darren Smith issued his warning as new figures revealed the West Midlands as being among the worst in Britain for workplace deaths showing a year-on-year increase of more than 100 per cent.

While national figures show workplace fatalities increased by 14 per cent, from 211 to 241 in the years 2006 to 2007, the number of incidents in the West Midlands rocketed from 16 to 33 over the same period.

Mr Smith, a risk and liability specialist who is a partner in the Birmingham office of international law firm Reed Smith Richards Butler, said: "I think the figures mean that the region will be under the spotlight once the new legislation is implemented in April next year.

"The authorities will almost certainly be looking to prosecute a firm with a very high profile to achieve the maximum impact following the implementation of the new law.

"Although the legislation targets companies rather than individual directors, it will come into play when there is evidence of 'organisational failure' on the part of senior management. Alarmingly for businesses, the scope for prosecution will be huge. The law covers everyone who might be owed a 'duty of care' by a company from employees and the occupiers of premises, to members of the public, such as rail passengers.

"This potentially will be a really big issue for the transport sector."

Recalling some of the major rail disasters of the recent past in which passengers have died, Mr Smith predicted that in future fatal incidents investigators will have to have one eye on how it occurred, and what steps might have been taken before the event which could have helped prevent it.

However the standard of proof is likely to be high, he says.

In order for a manslaughter prosecution to succeed it will have to be shown there was a 'gross breach' of management responsibility leading to the death, and strong evidence that standards fell far below industry standards and those of similar organisations.

Although individuals will be exempt from the corporate manslaughter charge, health and safety officials will still be able to draw on the existing health and safety at work regulations to prosecute executives and employees who are found to have contributed to a fatality.

Investigations will be wide ranging and will include enquiries into what senior managers were doing - and how much they knew that might have prevented the death - in the build up to any fatal incident. …