The independent health and safety regulator has accused the courts of not imposing high enough fines on companies who commit health and safety breaches.

Bill Callaghan, chair of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC), wrote a letter to the Cabinet Office this week stressing the need for ?more training for judges and magistrates so that the level of fines imposed for healthy and safety offences recognises the gravity of breaches and acts as an effective deterrent.? The letter was submitted to the Better Regulation Executive as part of the Macrory Review, which is currently examining the penalties imposed on industry by regulators.

?There is a need to ensure the current level of penalties, in terms of level of fines imposed, act as an effective deterrent,? wrote Callaghan. ?It is our belief that the current level is too low and needs to be increased.?

An HSC spokesman told Solicitors Journal: ?A couple of high fines, such at the one for the Hatfield train crash [?7.5m], have been in the press recently, but they nearly always involve members of the public. Outside of that, not many fatal accidents involving purely employees result in fines of over ?1m, in fact the average fine for a fatality at work is ?50,000. Employees have the right to go to work and come home in the same state they left the house.?

Higher fines are expected when the Corporate Manslaughter Biil, published last month, becomes law, but the HSC spokesman said he expected this to primarily be used for ?accidents involving members of the public? and that he was only ?envisaging a couple of fines a year? under the legislation.

The letter from Callaghan was sent on the same day that the HSC published the 2005/6 statistics for fatal injuries at work, which showed a record reduction in deaths. The number of fatalities fell by five per cent from the previous year ? 223 to 212. The rate of deaths per 100,000 employees fell to an all-time low of 0.71, which is the lowest in Europe.

However, Callaghan said: ?The figures are very encouraging but more needs to be done. There are still too many people killed at work every year, and quite often simple, inexpensive measures could have prevented the tragic loss of life.?

The Minister for Health and Safety, Lord Hunt, welcomed the latest figures, but fired out a similar warning. ?Despite this good news, we cannot be complacent,? he said. ?212 deaths are 212 deaths too many, and we must continue to focus our efforts on making further improvements and reducing this number even further."

TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O'Grady added: "With 212 people killed at work in the past 12 months, there are clearly still employers out there with scant regard for the health and safety of their workforce. Tougher penalties against bosses who committ safety crimes might encourage them to make safety more of a priority."

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