Heed the whistleblowers

Security solutions provider G4S is in the news again, but this latest story is unrelated to its recent Olympics crisis. This time, it concerns two tragic workplace fatalities.

On 1 October, in a BBC documentary looking into the 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 after the emails were sent, the man in question shot dead two of his colleagues.

Alan Milliband

Alan Millband, partner and expert in health and safety matters, Shakespeares

Fortunately, very few UK employers are going to encounter the kind of risks that seem to have materialised in this case – but the facts relate 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 the company 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. They 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 attention it merits, they may 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 “fees for intervention”). It may also result in a health and safety prosecution.

If the employer is prosecuted and it 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 is that there is a common misapprehension among employers that unless the warning is in some way “official” – for example, it is written and given by the health and safety authority – they can ignore it or give it less weight. This is not true. Warnings can come from a variety of sources, including unions, trade associations, health and safety consultants, employees, customers, members of the public and lawyers.

Your organisation might not deal with the level of risk that was evident in this case, but the odds are that sooner or later you’ll be warned that something isn’t safe. Whatever you do, don’t ignore it.

Alan Millband is a partner and expert in health and safety matters at Shakespeares.

More information on whistleblowing is available at XpertHR.

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