FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Rhian Greaves
15/05/2019

The first quarter of 2019 saw an inspection blitz by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on the food manufacturing sector.  As the industry recovers from this increased intervention we have also seen, quite coincidentally, a number of high profile prosecutions culminating in yet more seven figure fines. 

Associate Partner Rhian Greaves looks behind the headlines at the common risks the industry must manage and the reality behind the press reports.

The industry

Defra’s most recent national statistics demonstrate the importance of the food sector to the national economy.  Employing 12% of the workforce at the last count, it has seen a 1% increase in employee numbers over the year to the first quarter of 2018.

More specifically in food manufacturing, the proliferation of SMEs is striking comprising 97% of businesses in the industry covering 28% of employment and 19% of turnover.

Whilst the scope for growth in the sector is limited by consumer intake capacity, its economic and social impacts cannot be underestimated.

What are the risks?

As many food manufacturers know, there is a well rehearsed list of 12 risks that between them are responsible for 96% of injuries to those working in the sector.  They are:-

  1. Interactions with machinery, particularly the absence of guarding.
  2. Workplace transport.
  3. Work at height.
  4. Entry into silos and confined spaces.
  5. Slips and trips on wet and contaminated floors.
  6. Being struck by objects and knives.
  7. Manual handling.
  8. Work related upper limb disorders.
  9. Occupational dermatitis.
  10. Occupational asthma.
  11. Noise induced hearing loss.
  12. Work related stress.

The HSE’s document, “A Recipe for Safety” (http://www.hse.gov.uk/pubns/priced/hsg252.pdf), states quite simply, “managing these 12 issues in your company will significantly reduce injuries, ill health and the associated costs”.

What does the enforcement picture look like?

Perhaps mindful of the continuing push to put the “health” back into health and safety, the recent HSE inspection initiative concentrated on occupational asthma caused by exposure to flour dust, along with musculo-skeletal disorders.  And whilst the published outcomes from that initiative are awaited, there will no doubt also have been an increased incidence of enforcement action relating to the more familiar safety issues listed above.

Looking at the prosecution picture, we see this theme continuing. Of the six cases involving fines exceeding £1m:-

  • three involved falls from height;
  • two stemmed from guarding issues; and
  • one was a fatality caused by falling objects.

When we look further into other reported cases, we see a litany of accidents around vehicle movements, absent or inadequate guards and moving machine parts, justifying the focus on the “list of 12”.

What is the cost?

As an industry, food manufacturing comprises a wide range of sectors and activities with many common themes but also each with its own risks and concerns.  The prevalence and profile of these businesses and the brands they have to protect give the impression, at least, of a target industry perhaps more prosecuted than others.  However, an analysis of the very highest fines handed down across all industries shows that construction, general manufacturing and retail and logistics businesses appear with a greater frequency.

Where food manufacturers are prosecuted, we generally see the highest penalties imposed on the familiar consumer brands but even so, the fines do not come close to representing 1% of turnover for those household names.

For those in the SME space, we see them faring far better than their counterparts in construction and care, for example, where the new sentencing guidelines created a squeezed middle in which smaller businesses were deprived of a far greater proportion of turnover in the punishments imposed.  In food however, that does not appear to be the case, with our analysis suggesting that fines have broadly occupied 0.01% through to 1% of turnover (when compared to 1.5% – 3.75% for construction SMEs in the year to February 2017).

What next?

We await the outcome of the HSE’s New Year inspection blitz with interest; quite how much enforcement centred on the health aims identified at its inception as opposed to focussing on the more obvious safety concerns will be telling.

For the sector as a whole, the signs are encouraging.  Since the introduction of “Recipe for Safety” in 1990, the industry has seen a 55% reduction in its combined injury rate and a 40% drop in major injuries.  With continuing active industry participation and special health and safety interest groups, the direction of travel is positive.  The challenge ahead for this industry (as for all others) is to improve upon safety performance whilst also meeting the challenges presented by adverse health impacts, not least work related stress and asthma and other long-term conditions.

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