Is it safe to drive a 90 metre ship at four knots (4.6 miles per hour) within 500 metres of an oil platform in the North Sea?

Both an inspector from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and an employment tribunal thought not. The HSE’s inspector said that a safe speed was 0.5 knots. 

Accordingly, the inspector issued an improvement notice against Apache, the vehicle’s operator, and an employment tribunal has upheld the notice. I should add that according to the HSE’s website the notice has been complied with.

I mention this story for a few reasons:

  • It highlights the fact that, as an employer, you should always think about the health and safety of your employees and of the public – you can’t escape by taking to the high seas. 
  • It brings to light a procedure under health and safety law of which you might not be aware: improvement and prohibition notices. Health and safety law creates criminal sanctions that are enforced by the criminal courts – the magistrates’ courts and the Crown Court. However, a health and safety inspector can issue an improvement or prohibition notice without involving a court.
  • It is, however, a criminal offence to breach an improvement or prohibition notice. Another reason why these notices are so serious is that they are listed on a publically accessible database, which could cause significant reputational damage.
  • And why did the employment tribunal get involved? If you are issued with an improvement or prohibition notice, then you may appeal within 21 days to an employment tribunal, which can cancel or modify the notice. This is an extension of their more usual role in regular employment disputes where an employee sues the employer (such as for unfair dismissal or discrimination).
  • For completeness, I should mention that you can also appeal against criminal health and safety sanctions – those appeals go to the Crown Court or High Court.

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