The largest fine to date was imposed earlier this month on Sterecycle (Rotherham) Limited. Sterecycle was a South Yorkshire based waste management company operating autoclaves (pressure chambers) to process household waste.

On 11 January 2011, there was an explosion at the company’s waste processing plant when the door on an autoclave blew out under pressure. The explosion resulted in the death of 42 year old Michael Whinfrey from fatal head injuries and life changing injuries to one of his colleagues. A joint investigation by the police and the HSE found that the explosion had been caused by the failure of the screw securing the autoclave door in place. The HSE reported that Sterecycle had: 1) made modifications to autoclaves without considering the effect on the equipment; 2) removed safety devices because they were slowing production; and 3) made running repairs following breakdowns rather than investigating the problem. They went on to say that employees were inadequately trained and felt “in genuine fear for their safety at the site”. However, the view was that production was to be maintained at all costs. The HSE concluded by saying that “this terrible accident was entirely preventable”.

The judge who heard the case in the Crown Court said:

“The law imposes high obligations in relation to maintenance, safe operation, preservation of the safety devices and addressing modifications in the plant and equipment. You fell far short of those obligations in all material respects” and “There is a plethora of evidence that you cut corners to save money, keep production going, and to bat on, as one witness put it, until these autoclaves were retired from service.”

Sterecycle went into administration in 2012. The CPS took the decision to continue with the case despite this. It is not clear how much of the fine will be paid.

As with previous prosecutions under the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007, Sterecycle was a relatively small company making it easier for the prosecution to establish that the way in which its activities were managed or organised caused death and amounted to a gross breach of the duty of care owed by the organisation to the deceased (section 1 of the Act). However, it is a reminder to businesses of all sizes not to be complacent about the possibility of a prosecution under the Act. Nor should management forget that even if the organisation might be able to escape prosecution, this does not prevent possible prosecutions under health and safety legislation or for gross negligence manslaughter which can result in imprisonment and hefty fines.

The message from this case is that the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 is being applied and businesses ignore the importance of health and safety at their peril.