Under new guidelines produced by the Sentencing Council and applied from 1 July, a larger plc guilty of breaching environmental legislation could suffer from increased fines.
While the size of the maximum fine – £3m – has not changed, the Sentencing Council has set out a matrix-based approach for calculating the magnitude of the fine imposed.
Most medium-to-large contractors prosecuted for an environmental compliance offence will be vulnerable to larger fines under the new regime.
This is sobering news, especially as many of these companies are not fully aware of the environmental risk posed by construction activities or have little or no money in their budget for environmental management.
What has changed with the guidelines?
In essence, the Sentencing Council has set out a clear sentencing rationale whereby culpability, harm and the size of the responsible organisation will be used to determine the magnitude of the fine imposed on companies polluting the environment.
Potential fines vary from a minimum of between £100 and £700 for a near-miss incident caused by a micro company, through to between £450,000 and £3m for a deliberate act causing a major pollution incident by a large company.
How should the construction sector respond?
For many this is welcome news, as until now fines have been issued on an ad hoc basis and without any guidelines, so there has been little or no consistency in the sentences handed out.
The new guidelines will also deter unscrupulous companies, who previously would have simply paid the fine rather than incur the cost of the necessary environmental protection measures – companies that historically have given the construction industry a bad name.
So what should companies be doing to minimise the risk of breaching environmental legislation and the potentially hefty fines that could now result?
I would suggest eight key action points:
- Foster a culture of zero harm that embraces not only health and safety in the workplace but also the surrounding environment.
- Introduce a programme to educate site personnel on the environmental risks posed by construction activities.
For example, most construction workers are aware of the risks of silt and oil pollution, yet are more than happy to allow concrete wagons to wash out in leaky waste skips, even though high pH concrete wash water on a volume by volume basis has the potential to cause much greater harm.
- Plan the works in a manner that minimises the environmental risks.
For example, only strip the minimum area necessary for the works in hand, install measures to prevent silt pollution, refuel vehicles in designated areas where adequate spill prevention can be provided and wash concrete truck mixers out in a unit designed to treat the high pH water.
- Ensure the RAMS (risk assessments and method statements) cover the environmental risks associated with each construction activity and that operatives are briefed on that risk and how to manage it.
- Put in place appropriate measures to manage any residual environmental risk.
For example, segregate waste by different types, install settlement units to remove silt contamination from water pumped off construction sites, provide oil spill kits and only wash out concrete trucks into a system designed to neutralise the high pH water.
These measures need not be expensive and typically can be hired in on a weekly basis.
- Plan for the unexpected – it rains a lot in the UK, even in the summer! So make sure your environmental protection measures can cope with a sudden downpour or mid-summer thunderstorm.
- Know where to get specialist help and equipment to management the residual risk imposed by construction activities and make sure this equipment is installed and operational before commencing work.
- Ensure sufficient money is included in the budget to cover the cost of environmental protection measures. Ultimately, under the new sentencing regime this is likely to be significantly less expensive and less detrimental to the alternative of being fined.
Richard Coulton is CEO of Siltbuster