The Corporate Man-slaughter Act was passed in 2007 after 10 years of campaigning by safety groups to make it easier to tackle companies when the failures of senior management lead to a death.
It doesn’t relate specifically to the transport sector but LCV operations certainly come within its scope and although no fleet operators have yet ended up before the courts, this does not mean they can rest easy.
The Act builds on existing duty of care legislation and aims to complement it rather than add to it. But unlike other health and safety laws, a charge under this Act is meant to be a serious one, reserved for the very worst cases, which explains why it has so far only been used once (see panel).
Under the Act, a company commits an offence if the way in which its activities are managed causes a person’s death and amounts to a gross breach of the relevant duty of care owed by the organisation to the dead person.
So what exactly is the van fleet operator’s duty of care? This can be a moot point, but a person charged with this offence will have to show that they took trouble to ensure drivers were safe both on firms’ premises and on the road.
Each case, of course, will be different and taken on its merits, but a jury will be directed by a judge to consider whether the organisation failed to comply with any health and safety regulation that relates to the alleged breach and how serious the extent of that failing was.
Health and safety at work is a wide subject. It covers areas such as loading and unloading at the employer’s premises and also safety on the roads.
Firstly employers should check that their drivers actually have valid licences – a simple task but one that some fleets don’t carry out. Then the vehicles themselves must be maintained to safe standards, with tyres, oil and water checked regularly.
While this might seem simple, it is nevertheless an area where many fleets are lacking, especially when drivers are not responsible for a single vehicle.
A driver’s handbook is also an essential item. By providing this, an employer can set out clearly the way he or she expects drivers to behave. This can cover such items as smoking in the cab, use of hand-hand held mobile phones and eating lunch while on the move – all practices which should be banned.
Driver training is a subject which should be considered too as a fleet operator who has offered this facility will be less likely to be found guilty under the Act than one which hasn’t.
If a company is charged under the Act it is the senior management who will face the court.
Senior management is defined as the people who play significant roles in the making of decisions about how the company is managed.
This clearly involves those at board level but may also included managers who are involved at a more hands-on level if they manage a substantial part of the business.
If found guilty, a company can face an unlimited fine. However, the Sentencing Advisory Council recommends a figure of between 2.5% and 10% of average annual turnover.
Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings became the first firm convicted under the Act at Winchester Crown Court in 2011 and was fined £385,000.
Although the case is not related specifically to van fleets, the principles under which the judgement was reached are relevant.
Geologist Alexander Wright, 27, from Cheltenham, died in September 2008 when a
pit he was working in collapsed.
He was taking soil samples for a housing development in the 12.6ft (3.8m) pit in Brimscombe Lane, near Stroud, which was not supported by timbers, when it caved in.
The jury at Winchester Crown Court found the company guilty of failing to ensure his safety.