Employers who breach serious health and safety laws risk tougher penalties, including prison sentences, according to a new report.

The report, published on 16 January, looked at the impact of the first five years of the Health and Safety Offences Act, which was passed in 2008 and took effect on January 16 2009.

It found that changes introduced under the Act had led to higher fines for convicted offenders and an increased likelihood of a jail term. Its findings included:

  • the average fine imposed by the courts involving breaches of health and safety regulations alone increased by 60 per cent, from £4,577 to £7,310
  • for cases involving breaches of both health and safety regulations and the Health and Safety at Work Act, the average increase was 25 per cent, from £13,334 to £16,730
  • 346 cases attracted fines of more than £5,000. Prior to the Act, the maximum fine that could be imposed was capped at £5,000
  • between April 1 2006 and January 15, 2009, four per cent of cases that went before the higher courts, and one per cent before the lower led to a custodial sentence or equivalent, such as a suspended sentence or community service. In the time since the Act took effect, 18 per cent of cases heard in the higher courts and five per cent in the lower led to a custodial sentence or the equivalent.

Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning said that a clear message had been sent to “unscrupulous employers” that they would face stiff penalties if they failed to take their health and safety responsibilities seriously.

The Act increased the maximum penalties for workplace health and safety offences that could be heard in both the lower and higher courts, with the maximum fine the lower courts can impose rising from £5,000 to £20,000.