The case, in which a worker fell more than two metres while cleaning a mixing machine, was one in a line of prosecutions where large turnover companies had felt the full force of the new guidelines, which came into force in February 2016, lawyers claimed.
Under the new rules, a company with a turnover of more than £50M could be fined up to £20M for corporate manslaughter, up to £10M for health and safety offences, and up to £3M for breach of food safety regulations.
“There is a new normal for fines for non-fatal health and safety offences, and it is far higher than was the case under the old regime,” said Kizzy Augustin, criminal regulatory lawyer at Pinsent Masons.
“Warburtons was prosecuted in late 2014 for safety failings in respect of an operative who suffered long-term injury to his hand, and it received a £5,000 fine.
“This compares with the £2M fine this year for a fall that also resulted in long-term injuries to an operative. It is unfortunate that Warburtons has had to learn an expensive lesson, both in terms of financial penalty and reputation,” Augustin added.
Turnstone Law director Dr Simon Joyston-Bechal said food manufacturers needed to put in place important legal preventive steps to reduce the chances of being prosecuted after an incident occurred.
“What’s most interesting and little appreciated is that the [Warburtons] fine would not have been much lower even without any injury – just from the breach and the risk,” he said.
‘Breach and the risk’
“Many food manufacturers have a large turnover and also expose workers to hazards that, if insufficiently guarded against, tend to look easy to have prevented once hindsight is applied. For example, a tweak to a method statement or a piece of guarding on the production line would often have prevented the accident.
“The adjustment to the method statement might be ‘stop the production line before doing this task’; in which case failing to implement it risks the added aggravating feature of ‘cost cutting at the expense of safety’,” Joyston-Bechal added.
Meanwhile, DWF partner Dominic Watkins warned delegates at last October’s Food Manufacture’s food safety conference that there was a “massive change” in the way in which sentencing was being dealt with, and food manufacturers needed to be prepared.