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NEWS RELEASE * EMBARGO 00.01 hours 25 May 2004


24 May 2004

Commission Impossible
Unsafe workplace health and safety strategy risks more work deaths

A new occupational health and safety strategy for Great Britain is jeopardising workers' health by leaving health and safety enforcement to employers, warns a new report.

Commission impossible: A new enforcement-lite, cut price safety disaster [1] says the government's Health and Safety Commission (HSC) is moving towards business "self-regulation" of health and safety at a time when Britain has seen the worst spate of workplace safety tragedies in over a decade, many of which - including Morecambe Bay and Stockline Plastics - have been linked to a lack of rigorous safety enforcement. [2]

HSC's 2004 Strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond, rushed through after an unprecedented "quickie" three month consultation in the face of a major HSC funding squeeze, [3] includes an explicit commitment not to enforce criminal laws covering workplace safety, with the regulatory body instead "providing effective support free from the fear of enforcement."

In what must be a world first for an official workplace safety agency, HSC has an explicit commitment to "robust" action to tackle those who are "over-zealous" over health and safety. HSC adds it will discourage use of resources "where the risks are of low significance, well understood and properly managed."

However, the Commission Impossible report, published in this month's edition of the safety journal Hazards [www.hazards.org/commissionimpossible], says workplace safety is already dangerously unenforced, with fewer than one in five major injuries investigated and workplaces not judged high risk unlikely to have an inspector call in a working lifetime.

"Under new criteria being trialled, under-enforcement will edge further towards non-enforcement," warns Hazards editor Rory O'Neill, the report's co-author. "A worker could be scalped, suffer multiple fractures, suffer serious burns or lose the top of three fingers and there would be no investigation. This is akin to the police withdrawing from investigating stabbings because of lack of manpower.

"HSC is stealthily manoeuvring the Health and Safety and Executive (HSE), its enforcement arm, away from its legal duty to enforce health and safety in Britain's workplaces, towards a more advisory, CAB-for-workplace-safety, business friendly role." HSE does not, for example, have sufficient resources to enforce new regulations introduced last week to combat risks from asbestos, Britain's biggest industrial killer. [4]

Report co-author Professor Andy Watterson, an occupational health and safety expert at Stirling University, commented: "HSC has rigged the evidence to justify a move towards self-enforcement despite the risks. It's own research shows this strategy does not work and its internal reports concede it does not have evidence to justify this dangerous retreat from its regulatory role.

"HSC does not present itself as a champion for occupational health advances but rather as an apologist for an ineffective government. It lacks humanity but has mastered the latest meaningless management jargon."

Among improvements demanded in the report are a call for HSC to abandon the drift towards non-enforcement, for the government to provide an increase in the HSE budget and for HSC to champion the cause of workplace safety.


PRESS ENQUIRIES

Professor Andy Watterson, tel: 01786-870859 (mobile: 07966161401).
email: aew1@stir.ac.uk

Rory O'Neill, tel: 0114 235 2074. email: editor@hazards.org

NOTES TO EDITORS

1. Commission impossible: A new enforcement-lite, cut price safety disaster published in the Spring issue of occupational health and safety journal Hazards (no.86, 2004). An extended briefing is available online for journalists at www.hazards.org/commissionimpossible
Hazards can be obtained from Hazards Publications, PO Box 199, Sheffield, S1 4YL, England. Tel: 0114 235 2074. email: sub@hazards.org

2. This year has seen Britain's worst workplace disasters since the 1988 Piper Alpha tragedy.

• Nine workers were in a devastating 11 May 2004 plastics factory blast in Glasgow. The company was warned in advance when Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors were planning to visit. When a worker called HSE about safety concerns at the plant, HSE told the company the name of the whistleblower.

• It is now believed 23 Chinese migrant workers may have died in Morecambe Bay on 5 February 2004, employed in the poorly regulated and virtually unenforced grey economy run by "gangmasters".

• Just days before four rail maintenance workers were killed in Tebay, Cumbria on 15 February, transport secretary Alistair Darling told a conference of rail bosses the industry was "over-cautious" about safety at the expense of performance. Track worker deaths have reached a 13 year high.

3. HSE's budget has been frozen from 2003 to 2006, a 10 per cent cut in real terms. The £260m allocated to HSE in the current year amounts to less than 20p per worker per week.

4. In evidence to the on-going "Work and Pensions Committee Enquiry into the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive," HSE inspectors' union Prospect warned that an inspection regime currently under trial means serious accidents such as some lacerations, serious fractures, burns to less than 10 per cent of the body, and amputation of fingers aren't being investigated even when there is evidence that there has been a serious breach of manpower." It says "there is no prospect HS will be able to enforce new legislation aimed at removing the risks from asbestos." The new Control of Asbestos at Work Regulations took effect on 21 May.



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