ConocoPhillips (U.K.) Limited and UK Power Networks (Operations) Limited have been fined £3 million and £1 million respectively for (quite separate) safety breaches in two cases prosecuted by Pascal Bates. The pair of sentences illustrate the continuing trend firmly to mark offending by very large organisations (those with turnovers over £50 million) with sentences large enough to be noticed. Both cases were sentenced on the basis that the new Sentencing Council Definitive Guideline for sentencing health and safety offences, corporate manslaughter and food offences were not in force.
ConocoPhillips (U.K.) Limited was sentenced for breaches of offshore regulations on its Lincolnshire Offshore Gas Gathering System. Uncontrolled gas releases, consequent upon maintenance conducted under a ‘permit to work’ system which was not properly implemented, controlled and overseen, resulted in over 600 Kg. of natural gas spilling into a turbine hall and putting at risk 66 persons on the site, seven of them very seriously at risk. The gas did not in fact ignite and nobody was injured, though the emergency response was hampered by previously undiscovered latent defects in the fire and gas and emergency shutdown systems. A further uncontrolled release was narrowly averted when, before it could eventuate, a member of staff spotted, and took steps to close, a vital open valve. By reason of the recent falls in oil prices, by the time of sentence ConocoPhillips had seen its annual turnover slashed from over £10 billion to under £5 billion, and its former significant profitability fall into loss. In sentencing H.H.J. Pini Q.C. alluded to the very serious risks run and to the fact that it was good fortune which avoided an unhappy outcome. He fined the ConocoPhillips £3 million, plus costs, having allowed full credit for the guilty pleas which had been entered. As the sentencing hearing began in January 2016, H.H.J. Pini Q.C. did not apply the new guideline, even though the hearing ended on 8 February 2016, after that guideline would ordinarily have come into force.
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UK Power Networks (Operations) Limited was sentenced on 26 January 2016 for breach of its general duty towards non-employees. An undetectable component failure had led to an overhead electrical power line falling to a height of about 1.5 metres over a footpath. No criticism was made of the company’s maintenance regime and there was no means by which to identify the occurrence of the fault from the control room, and the line did not trip out or trigger any alarm. As a result the line remained live at 11,000V. After a period of over an hour in which members of the public who saw it did not report the descended line, the state of affairs was reported to the company, which despatched an engineer to site to investigate. Before that man reached the site and less than 30 minutes later, a runner ran into the line and was electrocuted. The company could have cut the power from its control room immediately following the report and, had that been done instead of despatching the engineer, the line would not still have been live when the runner hit it. Although the company did not have a policy of invariably despatching an engineer to site and obtaining his report before cutting the power, it did have a culture which discouraged the cutting of the power and did not require those handling reports either properly to consider (risk assess) the benefits and disadvantages of cutting the power in a given instance or effectively to elicit the relevant information upon which to make that assessment. The company had also been prosecuted previously for fatalities relating to workers (but not members of the public). H.H.J. Goldstaub Q.C., who sentenced before the new guideline came into force and without taking that guideline into account, alluded to a previous fatality from a partly descended, but still live, power line involving another electricity distribution company which he said had ‘screamed a warning across the whole grid’ to which UK Power Networks (Operations) Limited had not sufficiently responded. Giving full credit for the company’s guilty plea, he fined it £1 million, plus costs.
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The Daily Mail