Does the threat of jail improve health and safety practices?

by Alex on January 21, 2015

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Last year, the HSE and local authorities prosecuted over 600 cases relating to health and safety, resulting in over £18 million of fines. In the cases prosecuted by the HSE, there was an average fine of almost £19,000 per offence. Fines of this magnitude seem like they’d be enough of a deterrent to keep businesses on the right side of health and safety law.

But the HSE also issued almost 14,000 notices last year, making it clear that there a huge number of contractors weren’t deterred from violating regulations. Would the threat of more serious punishment make companies more likely to observe and prioritize health and safety laws?

Jail time as a deterrent

Prison sentences don’t get handed down for health and safety violations very often, but when they do, it gets a lot of attention. To be prosecuted under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act of 2007, a worker’s death must be caused by the gross negligence of someone in the organisation. Convictions under the Act don’t always result in jail time, however—for a court to hand down a prison sentence, the people in charge of work sites generally show little or no interest in rectifying the issues, and they’re often repeat offenders.

The Act hasn’t seen many convictions since its adoption in 2007, but prosecutions have increased by a large margin over the past years (there was a 40% increase from 2011 to 2012). The Crown Prosecution Services, despite their low conviction rate, do seem to be motivated to prosecute.


Most convictions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act result in large fines, and can include bans on holding the directorship at a company. But a County Durham man was sent to jail in 2013 after improperly planning work at height that resulted in a man’s fall and subsequent death. And last year, the co-owner of a company and a safety consultant were given jail time after not putting adequate safety measures in place despite repeated visits to the site and changes in methods.

It’s clear that the HSE is hoping to disincentivise dangerous practices, but does it work?

The evidence

Whether or not the potential of being incarcerated is effective in getting companies to adopt better health and safety practices is largely unknown. There’s a lot of disagreement over whether the current system of punishment is even appropriate for health and safety violations (the disagreement often centers on the perceived purpose of the prison system).

Although research is limited, there’s reason to believe that jail time might not be the most effective disincentive for promoting the observance of health and safety legislation. In the past, economic incentives have been shown to be quite effective in enforcement—the threat of heavy fines, the inability to get insurance, and other financial penalties do seem to motivate people to follow the laws.

Go To Jail

Very few statistics are available on the effect of jailing health and safety violators, the rate of relapse, and subsequent violations. More research in this area is desperately needed. Until we see it, there’s no way to be sure that more jail sentences would deter potential offenders.

Moving forward

With little empirical evidence available, it’s difficult to know whether more jail sentences will result in fewer serious health and safety violations. The HSE is preparing to increase the amounts of fines for these violations, but whether they decide to push for prison sentences in more cases remains to be seen. We’ll be watching eagerly to see what works and what doesn’t when it comes to effective enforcement.

What do you think? Would an increase in jail sentences be likely to make more contractors obey health and safety laws? Or would other disincentives be more successful? Share your thoughts below!

Image credits: Michael Coghlan, Keith Allison, Ken Teegardin via flickr.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

mike malliagh January 31, 2015 at 9:59 am

The thought of going to jail is bad enough but will it teach the individuals a lesson ?? I doubt it ,,,the thought of being black listed in the industry and stopping them getting another job sure would make you think again ,,,,,


HANDSHQ.COM February 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm

Thanks Mike – I think the threat of jail works for employers and business owners – but your probably right that the workers in the field won’t be effected much.

8 of the largest construction companies in the UK had a similar idea in 2009, but these same firms are now compensating workers who were victims of any past blacklisting. Unable to find employment in the construction industry, workers were often blacklisted for raising health and safety concerns so I think whilst black listing could be effective, education is probably more suitable to ensure safer working practices are encouraged. You can see the latest on this issue here and here


Jane Hudson February 8, 2015 at 4:08 am

No, I don’t believe the threat of jail or hefty fines will improve health and safety issues. When people know that incarceration is a realistic ending if they do a deed has not stopped crime as most individuals believe that it would never happen to them. As stated previously, effective training and incentives have proven very effective on many of the sites I have managed. The incentives had to be good, not a keychain with the company logo but they did get excited about a nice looking jacket with company credentials. Weekly safety meetings that are held in the field next to the equipment in an impromptu manner that is quick and to the point with coffee and donuts worked wonders. A challenge or competition between sites for the least accidents or company wise was also effective. Many of the men stepped up to become the overseers of the persons not working safely and when the lesson came from a peer it was more readily accepted and understood. Yes we have a long way to go to insure a safe and healthy working environment when everyone is pushing to bring a project in on time and in budget, but we also have risen to the occasion. With training and awareness, I feel accidents are presenting as more minor and expected than overwhelming and catastrophic.


Alex February 9, 2015 at 11:40 am

Thanks Jane!

Super insightful and I do agree with getting people engaged in safety and hazard awareness as a group. I do feel however, the smaller sites is where we’re still seeing a lot of contractors not engaging. Will be interesting to see this years’s results on accident numbers on smaller sites, and whether there’ll be any reduction with the new CDM 2015 regulations.


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