Social housing provider Places for People Homes has had its £600,000 fine for vibration failures slashed by a third after proving the financial penalty would see vulnerable people suffer.
In November 2019, the social housing provider was prosecuted by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after five employees suffered from hand-arm vibration syndrome and/or carpal tunnel syndrome, resulting from their work.
HSE investigators found that between 2009 and 2014 the employees used vibrating powered tools to carry out grounds maintenance tasks at sites in Milton Keynes, Rotherham and Hull.
Aylesbury Crown Court was told the company, which owns or manages nearly 200,000 properties across the UK, failed to assess or manage the risks associated with vibrating tools. It also failed to provide suitable training or health surveillance for its maintenance workers and failed to maintain and replace tools which increased vibration levels.
Places for People Homes, which had a turnover of £827 million in 2018/19, pleaded guilty to breaching s 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work Act. The company was fined £600,000 and ordered to pay £13,995 costs.
The not-for-profit organisation appealed against the fine on the grounds that it manages and provides affordable social housing, as well as undertaking improvements to properties and organised social initiatives that aim to support vulnerable people.
In deciding the original fine, the judge applied the sentencing guidelines for health and safety offences. The judge said the company’s turnover significantly exceeded the £50 million threshold for large companies ‘by five or six times’. This led the trial judge to increase the starting amount for the fine from £1 million to £2 million.
With no aggravating factors and substantial mitigation, the original fine was reduced to £1.25 million. To balance the effect this would have on the people who benefit from the organisation, the judge reduced this to £900,000.
Finally, because Places for People Homes submitted an early guilty plea, the fine was reduced by a third, leading to the final amount of £600,000.
Places for People Homes’ appeal was based on three main points:
- the judge had wrongly adjusted the starting point for the fine based on the size of its turnover;
- the judge should have taken into account the organisation was a not-for-profit and invested its money back into the organisation; and
- the judge had failed to make a sufficient enough reduction in the fine to reflect the impact it would have on its vulnerable beneficiaries.
The appeal judge said the original trial judge was right to put an initial uplift in the starting fine to £2 million. From here the judge could consider mitigating factors, which included no previous convictions, a good health and safety record and measures to remedy the issue before HSE inspection to prevent recurrence, at a cost of £600,000.
The judge said the reduction in fine to £1.25 million based on mitigation measures was adequate.
On the second ground of appeal regarding funds, the appeal judge said this was to be considered in profitability of the organisation in the next step of the sentencing fine.
The final ground of appeal, which focused on the impact of the fine on the organisation’s vulnerable beneficiaries, was key in this case. The appeal judge said not enough allowance was made to reflect the impact of the fine on the beneficiaries of the appellant’s activities.
Places for People Homes was in a comparable position to a charity, and it was clear the potential beneficiaries of its activities would suffer more from a larger fine than the organisation itself.
Consequently, the appeal was allowed and the judge issued a more appropriate fine of £400,000.