The HSE has prosecuted a contractor after it identified multiple health and safety issues during a COVID-19 ‘spot check’ at a site in Manchester. This is the first prosecution to arise from the HSE’s Spot Check programme.

Background

Throughout the pandemic, HSE inspectors performed a number of proactive COVID-19 spot checks (reportedly over 316,000) at construction sites across the UK. It carried out one such check at a site in Manchester in the summer of 2020.

The inspection identified a number of safety issues, including: (i) working at height; (ii) welfare; (iii) COVID-19 measures; (iv) site security; and (v) electricity. The HSE served the principal contractor with a Prohibition Notice and two Improvement Notices.

The HSE carried out a return inspection on 17 August 2020, and few improvements had been made. The HSE decided additional enforcement action was required, including a further Prohibition Notice regarding an unsupported excavation. 

The contractor, Umar Akram Khatab, failed to comply with any of the Enforcement Notices HSE had served.

The contractor pleaded guilty to breaches of Section 21 of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and Regulation 13(1) of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015. He was sentenced to a 12-month community order, and ordered to pay £3,000 towards costs, as well as a victim surcharge of £95.

Points to take away

Although many COVID-19 restrictions have been lifted throughout the UK, the HSE continues to carry out spot checks and inspections. The principal purpose of the visits is to provide advice and information, advising businesses on how best to manage risk and protect employees.  

Contractors should comply with all relevant legislation, regulations, guidelines and codes for their project; protecting the health and safety of employees and workers is paramount. The additional checks carried out by HSE during the pandemic has increased scrutiny of projects, and reflects the additional Coronavirus-related safety requirements placed on all parties involved in construction projects. 

All employers should not only have properly documented health and safety policies, but should also be reviewing risk assessments to take into account the changing regulations and guidance, depending on which part of the UK the company is operating in.

One of the tools available to the HSE when identifying a breach of health and safety law is to issue an Improvement or Prohibition Notice (as was the case following the inspection at the site in Manchester). Whichever type of notice is served, it is imperative that recipients take immediate action to comply with the notice and carry out the necessary investigations and/or remedial work.  

It is also worth carefully reviewing the detail of the notice. If a recipient disagrees with the terms of an Improvement or Prohibition Notice, they must appeal within 21 days. Time is therefore of the essence.

While this is the first prosecution to arise from the HSE’s Spot Check programme, it shows that where there is a consistent failure to protect employees’ health and safety, including risks from COVID-19, HSE will take action. The likely outcome of a successful prosecution is a fine imposed against the company. However, employees and directors may also be prosecuted, which could mean a fine, imprisonment, or even director disqualification.

If you are in doubt as to what legal requirements are relevant to your project, we recommend you seek legal advice.

For more information, please contact Kevin Clancy, at kevin.clancy@shepwedd.com, or Iain Drummond, at iain.drummond@shepwedd.com, Partners in our commercial disputes team.

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