On 1st October 2012, in a BBC documentary looking into the British Government’s use of private armed security organisations, it was alleged that G4S was sent emails warning it against employing a particular armed security guard in Iraq. The emails seem to have been sent by a whistleblower whose apparent concern was that the guard was not a man to be trusted with firearms. Not long afterwards the man shot dead two of his colleagues.
OK, this isn’t your ball park work-related fatal accident. Very few UK employers are going to encounter the kind of risks that seem to have materialised in this case – but don’t switch off, because the facts actually give rise to something that should be a significant health and safety consideration for every employer.
If the facts are true, G4S was warned of a situation in which workers and others might be exposed to health and safety risks arising out of the work that it (G4S) was doing. The documentary alleged that G4S disregarded the warning.
If, during an investigation, a health and safety inspector discovers that the employer was warned that something unsafe might happen, the inspector will check how the employer responded to the warning. He will expect to see that the employer had addressed the potential harm to which the warning referred; had assessed the risk of it materialising; and, as required under health and safety law, had eliminated the risk or (if the employer genuinely couldn’t eliminate it) had put in place control measures to reduce the risk to the lowest practicable level.
If the inspector finds that the employer has ignored the warning, or hasn’t paid it the regard it merits, that may well prompt him to take enforcement action. The failure to properly heed a warning is one of the factors that encourage health and safety inspectors to take formal action against employers. Such action may trigger the fees that the Health and Safety Executive can now charge employers for investigating and taking action against them, this regime being FFI (fees for intervention). It may also result in a health and safety prosecution.
If the employer is prosecuted, and that leads to a conviction, any failure to properly regard and act on a warning is an aggravating feature of the case. That will almost certainly mean a much higher fine.
Another important point: There is a common misapprehension amongst employers that unless the warning is in some way “official” – i.e. written and given by the health and safety authority – they can ignore it or give it less weight. Wrong. Warnings can come from a variety of sources, including Unions, Trade Associations, Health and Safety Consultants, employees, customers, whistleblowers, members of the public, lawyers – shall we go on?
You may never send employees with guns to far-off places; but the odds are that sooner or later you’ll be warned that something isn’t safe. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it.
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