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Everyone’s responsible for work safety – but who’s liable?

[fa icon="calendar"] 3/22/17 4:15 PM / by SAMTRAC



When safety fails at a company, who is to blame? The equipment that wasn’t working? The employee who wasn’t qualified to operate a forklift? Or the company owner who hasn’t signed off on the correct HSE training? As the following case studies show, leading a company includes leading by example. If your employees don’t implement the correct safety policies and procedures, it could put lives – and your freedom – at risk.


Case study #1: Former coal baron’s conviction upheld on appeal

It’s good to see that the law is standing firm when it comes to enforcing penalties – and punishment – for health and safety violations. This is certainly the case in Delaware in the United States, where former coal baron Donald Blankenship will stay in jail after an appeals court upheld his conviction for flouting mine-safety laws.


The self-named ‘political prisoner’ was unable to identify any reversible errors in his 2016 trial, where he was charged with ignoring safety rules at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch (UBB) mine.


The crime

Blankenship, former CEO of Massey Energy, was convicted in December 2015 of one of three counts against him for conspiring to ‘willfully violate mandatory mine health and safety standards’ at the UBB mine that claimed the lives of 29 men in an explosion on April 5, 2010. A federal safety inspection later found that ‘if basic safety measures had been in place… there would have been no loss of life at UBB [Upper Big Branch].’


Jurors convicted Blankenship of a misdemeanour conspiracy charge of ignoring safety standards at Massey’s operations. The conviction carried a maximum penalty of one year in prison and a $250 000 fine. Unfortunately, the former CEO was cleared of three felony counts, which would have carried more substantial prison time.


Appeal denial has set a standard

Blankenship’s conviction marks the first time a major energy company’s top executive has been jailed over a workplace crime. He’s serving a year sentence at a minimum-security prison camp in Taft, California, and is due to be released May 10, according to the US Bureau of Prisons.


US District Judge Irene Berger properly allowed jurors to find Blankenship guilty of a willful violation of safety laws if they concluded his actions amounted to a ‘reckless disregard’ for those statutes (a three-judge panel of the Richmond, Virginia-based appeals court wrote in a 34-page opinion).


Case study #2: Harrison Ford's Star Wars injury results in $2 million fine for British Production Film


Last year, Foodles Production company was given the fine over an injury to Harrison Ford’s leg that occurred during the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The British firm, owned by Disney, was fined for health and safety breaches after Harrison Ford was crushed by a hydraulic door.


The company faced sentencing after previously pleading guilty to two counts of breaching its health and safety duties. A court had formerly been told that Ford could have been killed in the incident while filming at Pinewood Studios in London.


Judge Francis Sheridan said the firm had failed to communicate effectively with Ford: ‘The greatest failing of all on behalf of the company is a lack of communication, a lack because, if you have a risk assessment and you do not communicate it, what is the point of having one? That is the most serious breach here.


‘If only they had included Mr Ford in all the discussions, he might have at least been alert to the dangers that he had to avoid,’ he added.


Ford needed surgery to screw together the fractured tibia and fibula bones in his left leg and plastic surgery on a ‘deep laceration’ to his left hand.


Speaking about the injury to talk-show host Jonathan Ross in December, Ford said the hydraulics involved in the Millennium Falcon had considerably developed since 1977 when the doors were controlled with a pulley operated by hand: ‘Now we had lots of money and technology and so they built a fucking great hydraulic door which closed at light speed and somebody said, “Ooh I wonder what this is?” And the door came down and hit me on my left hip because I was turned to my right. And then it flung my left leg up and it dislocated my ankle and as it drove me down to the floor, my legs slapped on the ramp up to the Millennium Falcon and broke both bones in my left leg.’


Foodles issued a statement in response to the ruling. ‘The safety of our cast and crew was always a top priority and we deeply regret this unfortunate on-set accident. The Court acknowledged both the additional safety protocols that were immediately implemented, and that it was a very safe production in all other respects.’


Case study #3: Hotel Manager arrested, citing building safety violations


On the 13th of March this year, authorities forced tenants out of a century-old Juneau hotel and arrested the property's manager after identifying several public health and safety hazards within the building.


Juneau spokeswoman Lisa Phu says the hotel has been condemned after the owners failed to address outstanding fire and building code violations. Bergmann Hotel owners Kathleen and James Barrett had until last month to correct the violations, but city officials say recent inspections found few corrections had taken place, but several more violations.


Juneau police escorted tenants out of the building and the Salvation Army helped those who had nowhere to go find housing.


The manager was taken into custody for not complying with a Thursday notice mandating the violations be corrected or the building vacated within 24 hours.


Be the safety advocate you want to see in your workplace

Now is your chance to implement a lasting health and safety culture in your workplace that carries through to all levels of your workforce. As an employer, how you promote good SHE principles and processes in your workplace will differ slightly depending on your risk assessment, but you can already begin by adopting these practices.



  1. Establish open communication

A key component to maintaining employee trust is to encourage open communication on any and all health and safety issues you observe. You should also encourage employees to express their concerns or bring to light any issue they believe interferes with your company’s safety goals. Recruit and educate the best supervisors to encourage accessibility and interaction within each department. This will help prevent a fear of communicating with management.


  1. Implement strict safety policies

Ideally, a workplace is completely hazard-free. But, when it comes to some trades, such as ground construction and mechanical engineering, these will always involve precarious work and unstable environments. Discourage employees who are not designated to work in certain high-risk positions from entering these hazardous zones, or attempting to carry out jobs they are not certified to complete.


Spread awareness by:

  • labelling unsafe environments
  • posting general warning signs
  • referencing the qualifications needed to enter various regions of a worksite.


For corporate office environments that present less physical risk, identify all potential hazards early on and control minor dangerous mishaps, such as broken glass or plumbing leaks.


  1. Promote health initiatives

You can do this by following these steps:

Step #1: Gain support from management.

Step #2: Review laws that apply to your worksites to ensure you are compliant.

Step #3: Work with workforce representatives to develop your health and safety programme.

Step #4: Invite a site visit from an occupational health expert to make health and safety recommendations (if required).

Step #5: Communicate your aims to all employees.

Step #6: Host in-house workshops/training sessions for workers, focused on preventing work-related illness and injury.

Step #7: Offer medical screenings.

Step #8: Establish a working group with clear terms of reference.

Step #9: Carry out a health-needs assessment with employees.

Step #10: Plan and implement initiatives in response to the health needs assessment findings.

Step #11: Evaluate the effectiveness of the initiatives.

Step #12: Integrate initiatives into the business’s regular management practices.


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Topics: Leadership in HSE, HSE training, Liability, HSE culture



SAMTRAC International is the leading occupational health, safety and environment (HSE) management e-learning training course that provides students with the foundational and fundamental knowledge critical to occupational HSE management.

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