Paying the price: the largest health and safety fines

Chris Warburton
01 Dec 2014
Paying the price: the largest health and safety fines
Emergency service crew search through the wreckage of the Larkhall gas blast.

With the news that the Sentencing Council has launched a consultation on plans that could see a significant increase in fines, we’ve taken a look at some of the largest penalties handed down by the UK courts for health and safety offences. 

Transco, Larkhall gas explosion: £15m
On 22 December 1999, just a few days before Christmas, a huge explosion killed a family of four in Larkhall, Lanarkshire. The blast, which completely destroyed their house, was heard up to four miles away and left behind a scene likened by witnesses to "a war zone". Andrew Findlay, his wife Jeanette and children Stacy, 13, and Daryll, 11, were all killed in the blast.

The subsequent investigation found that the cause was leaking gas from corroding mains pipes, which were the responsibility of Transco. After a 27-week trial, the utility firm was found guilty of failing to maintain the main, which ran through the family's garden. It was fined a record £15m in August 2005.

Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services, Hatfield train crash: £7.5m

On 17 October 2000 a London-to-Leeds express train derailed south of Hatfield station while travelling at 115mph. The primary cause of the accident was later determined to be a fractured rail, which shattered as the train passed over it. Four passengers were killed and a further 102 injured.

The faulty rail was spotted 21 months earlier but left unrepaired even though a replacement rail had been delivered and left alongside it for six months. The judge, Mr Justice MacKay, described the failings of Balfour Beatty Rail Infrastructure Services as “the worst example of sustained negligence in a high-risk industry I have ever seen”. The company was initially fined £10m, but it was reduced to £7.5m on appeal.

Network Rail (formerly Railtrack), Ladbroke Grove train crash: £4m
Thirty-one people were killed and more than 220 injured in 1999 when a Thames Trains commuter service smashed into a First Great Western train after going through a red light at Ladbroke Grove in west London. The collision led to a fireball which burnt out a coach.

Mr Justice Bean said that the accident had been the result of "incompetent management and inadequate process" on behalf of Railtrack, which went on to become Network Rail. Railtrack was warned five years earlier that a set of signals was badly laid and potentially dangerous. The signals had been misinterpreted by drivers at least seven times in the five years before the collision. Despite the warnings, Railtrack officials took no significant action. The company was fined £4m.

Network Rail, Grayrigg derailment: £4m

Photograph: Lawrence Clift

Network Rail was again fined £4m over the derailment of a train near Grayrigg on 23 February 2007, causing the death of one passenger and injuring 86 people. The subsequent investigation found that the scheduled inspection on 18 February 2007 had not taken place and a faulty set of points had gone undetected.

The organisation pleaded guilty during the 2012 prosecution to a series of failures to provide and implement suitable and sufficient standards, procedures, guidance, training, tools and resources for the inspection and maintenance of fixed stretcher-bar points.

Network Rail, Hatfield train crash: £3.5m
The owner and operator of Britain’s rail infrastructure was fined £3.5m for its part in allowing the backlog of work that led to the Hatfield disaster to accumulate.

Total UK, Buncefield explosion and fire: £3m

On 11 December a series of explosions occurred at the Buncefield oil storage depot in Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire. A series of failings led to thousands of gallons of petrol being released in a large vapour cloud. The resulting explosion registered at 2.4 on the Richter scale, injured 43 people, and destroyed nearby businesses. A large area of the site was engulfed by fire, which burned for several days and released large plumes of black smoke into the atmosphere. The economic cost of the incident was estimated as close to £1bn.

A four month trial at St Alban's Crown Court concluded in July 2010, with five companies being found guilty and ordered to pay a total of £9.5m in fines and costs. For its part, Total UK was fined £3m for safety offences, and £600,000 for pollution.

Network Rail (formerly Railtrack), Potters Bar rail crash: £3m

On 10 May 2002, a train derailed at high speed at Potters Bar railway station, killing seven and injuring 76. Part of the train ended up wedged between the station platforms and building structures. In 2011 Network Rail was fined £3m for its predecessor Railtrack failing to properly maintain points on the London to King’s Lynn line.

Thames Trains, Ladbroke Grove train crash: £2m
Thames Trains was fined what was then a record £2m at a hearing in April 2004 after pleading guilty to two health and safety breaches related to the Ladbroke Grove disaster.

The court ruled the company had failed to properly train driver Michael Hodder, who had not been warned about problems with an "infamous" signal in the Paddington area. The 31-year-old father of two had only been qualified for 13 days when he died in the crash.

Great Western Trains, Southall rail crash: £1.5m

Seven people were killed and 147 injured when a Great Western Trains service from Swansea ran a red light at 125mph and crashed into a freight train at Southall, west London. An automatic warning system had not been working properly and another safety system, Automatic Train Protection (ATP), was not switched on. The court acquitted the train’s driver of seven counts of manslaughter, but Great Western Trains was fined £1.5m in July 1999.

Corus, Port Talbot steelworks blast furnace explosion: £1.3m
In November 2001, three steelworkers were killed and 12 others seriously injured when a blast furnace at Corus’s Port Talbot steelworks exploded, showering them with molten liquid. The explosion happened when 50 tonnes of water leaked from a cooling system into the blast furnace. The water reacted with molten metal, causing a massive explosion that lifted the furnace off its base.

Judge Lloyd Jones said that management at the Port Talbot works had a “casual and sloppy” attitude to safety and had committed a “lamentable catalogue of failures”. In addition to the £1.3m fine, the judge ordered the company to pay £1.75m in costs.

Balfour Beatty, Heathrow Tunnel Collapse: £1.2m
Hundreds of lives were put at risk when tunnels collapsed during the construction of the Heathrow Express Rail Link. Described as one of the UK's worst civil engineering disasters of the past 25 years, it caused a huge crater to appear between the airport's two main runways as well as damage to car parks and buildings.

While no-one was injured, Judge Peter Cresswell said it was "luck more than judgment" that the collapse did not crush to death passengers using the nearby Piccadilly Line tube line. Balfour Beatty, which was building the tunnel, was fined £1.2m in February 1999.

Marks and Spencer, Reading and Bournemouth stores: £1m

M&S in Reading's Broad Street. Photograph: Paul Gillett 

The retail giant M&S was fined in September 2011 for putting staff and the public at risk of being exposed to asbestos during the refurbishment of stores in Reading and Bournemouth in 2006 and 2007. The court heard that as client Marks and Spencer did not allocate sufficient time and space for the removal of asbestos-containing materials at the Reading site. 

The court heard how ceiling tiles containing the cancer-causing material fell to the ground at the Broad Street site, contractors had to work overnight in enclosures on the shop floor, completing small areas of asbestos removal before the shop opened each day, and areas previously cleaned were re-contaminated by air moving through the void between the ceiling tiles and the floor above, and by poor standards of work. Three contractors carrying out the work were also fined. 

Are there any we’ve missed? Let us know below.