Last week, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) said (here) that tougher penalties are being handed out to employers who breach serious health and safety laws following a change in the approach to prosecutions. The report reviews the first 5 years of the Act, which was passed in 2008 and took effect on January 16, 2009. It was conducted by the Health & safety Executive (HSE) on behalf of the DWP.

Changes introduced under the Health and Safety Offences Act, have led to more cases being tried in the lower courts, higher fines handed out to convicted offenders and more jail terms for unscrupulous employers who pay scant regard to the welfare of their staff or the public.

The perpetrators, that is unscrupulous employers, could be in for a big shock if they breach the rules in future. Minister of State for Health and Safety Mike Penning said:  “By handing greater sentencing powers to Magistrates and Sheriffs it has sent a clear message to unscrupulous employers that if they do not take their responsibilities seriously they will face stiff penalties, which include heavy fines and – in the very worst cases – prison. At the same time it has removed the burden of prosecuting all but the most serious of cases through the Crown Courts, which is generally less efficient, more time-consuming and more expensive than hearings held at the lower courts.”

The purpose of the Act was to increase the maximum penalties for workplace health and safety offences that could be heard in both the lower and higher courts. It was believed that if the penalties were increased it would provide a greater deterrent to would-be offenders. The maximum fine that could be imposed by the lower courts increased four-fold from £5,000 to £20,000. Magistrates and Sheriffs were also given greater powers to send an offender to prison.

In the past custodial sentences were reserved for specific cases, but now someone can be sent to prison for the majority of offences.  And certain offences that in the past could only be tried in the lower courts, such as the failure to comply with an improvement order, were made triable in either court, meaning the offender could face a much tougher sentence if their case was referred to the Crown Court.

You can read the full report: Health and Safety Act 2008: Post-legislative scrutiny memorandum 16 January 2014, here.

In a separate report affecting employees, doing a night shift throws the body “into chaos” and could cause long-term damage, warn researchers. Shift work has been linked to higher rates of type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and cancer. We are told that scientists at the Sleep Research Centre in Surrey have uncovered the disruption shift work causes at the deepest molecular level.

If we don’t go to sleep when we should (something our parents told us when we were children), it has profound effects on the body, altering everything from hormones and body temperature to athletic ability, mood and brain function. The human body has its own natural rhythm or body clock tuned to sleep at night and be active during the day.

Prof Hugh Piggins, a body-clock researcher (now, that’s an interesting job title) from the University of Manchester, told the BBC: “The study indicated that the acute effects are quite severe.  It is surprising how large an effect was noticed so quickly, it’s perhaps a larger disruption than might have been appreciated.”

Disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm can also lead to obesity as well as increasing the risk of diabetes and heart disease. That is the conclusion of the first study to show definitively that insulin activity is controlled by the body’s circadian biological clock. The study, which was published in the journal Current Biology, helps explain why not only what you eat, but when you eat, matters. You can read about it here.

Martin Pollins
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