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UK OUT OF WORLD SAFETY ELITE
Safety controls are being undermined at work, and it's the safety watchdog that is responsible. As the UK drops down the world's safety rankings, Hazards looks at the dangerous thinking behind its policy shift.
Health and Safety Commission claims of a move to "sensible controls sensibly applied" and "evidence-based" policy making (Hazards 86), have taken a serious knock as three reports show the UK has fallen out of the world's safety elite and has adopted a dangerous and poorly argued policy platform.
In the week following July's Select Committee report  which rubbished HSC's current strategy and called for more enforcement and more safety reps rights and new figures showing a 4 per cent rise in workplaces fatalities, HSC chair Bill Callaghan commented: "Great Britain has the second lowest rate of workplace fatalities in the European Union, beaten only by Sweden, but this should not be taken as a call for complacency."
He added: "HSC/E are committed to being a good partner - working with others to improve health and safety, but this needs the support of industry to make sensible health and safety the cornerstone of a civilised society."
However, new reports from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) reinforce the Select Committee's damning findings.
Economic security for a better world , a September 2004 report from ILO, used a detailed "work security index" to rate nations for health and safety performance. Report co-author Dr Ellen Rosskam told Hazards the UK came 21st out of the 23 developed nations included in its research, ahead of only the US and New Zealand. It also failed to make the global top 10 on safety outcomes.
She added that overall ILO did not rank the UK alongside other European Union countries as a health and safety "pacesetter." Instead it was consigned with countries including Barbados, Argentina, Chile, Estonia and Latvia to the "pragmatists" also-rans category. According to Rosskam: "Pacesetter countries perform better in protecting workers' health than countries that do not make the pacesetter group."
The CCA report, Making companies safe , reviewed the UK and international evidence and concludes inspection and investigation backed by legislation is most effective in guaranteeing safety at work. The Amicus-backed report says HSE's shift to less enforcement and more voluntary approaches has been dictated by a lack of resources, which has forced a recruitment freeze and a reduction in the number of HSE inspectors and the frequency of inspections.
It adds that a Treasury-led review is looking at the possibility of conducting "targeted inspection programmes" that could exempt some companies from HSE inspections altogether. The Hampton review of regulation and enforcement in a range of agencies including HSE, is only soliciting the views of business.
According to Dr Courtney Davis, author of the CCA report, HSC chair Bill Callaghan and top HSE bosses, caught up in this deregulatory fervour, "are confusing means with motivation. Guidance and information might provide employers with the means to improve health and safety but they don't provide employers with the motivation."
CCA's Courtney Davis added: "What motivates the majority of employers is the threat of enforcement. But current levels of HSE inspection, investigation and enforcement are too low to provide a credible threat. "On top of this the evidence suggests that if there aren't adequate levels of inspection and enforcement then resources expended on 'alternative interventions' - like supply chain pressure, partnership approaches, and firm reputation - may be money down the drain, since these interventions are themselves dependent upon credible levels of inspection and enforcement."
Derek Simpson, general secretary of Amicus, said: "There is overwhelming evidence that the threat of legal action is the key driver for companies to improve their health and safety standards. The HSE's new focus on education and information through voluntarism is not enough unless backed by rigorous and effective enforcement action." He added: "Companies have to be compelled to act and the current low levels of inspection, enforcement and prosecution do not provide a sufficient deterrent to those who have little regard for the health and safety of their employees."
It's deregulation, stupid
The evidence, however, seems to be playing a secondary role in HSC's decision-making. The entire HSC "Strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond" was prepared without any HSC evaluation of whether the new approach would work, HSC sources have told Hazards, adding that it is only now considering commissioning an evaluation.
Instead, the strategy was devised to meet deregulatory pressure from the government. Becoming a modern regulator, a 23 March 2004 internal HSC paper, notes "there has been deregulatory pressure from within government to reduce burdens on business, be clearer about the benefits of regulation, and more sympathetic to business needs." It adds that "HSE has responded positively to the debate."
The pressure to downgrade safety protection is Europe-wide. HSC's Bill Callaghan spoke at a flagship European Union conference in Amsterdam in September on "soft laws and voluntary initiatives." Dutch union federation FNV and Christian union CNV boycotted and protested outside the conference, which they say was a thinly veiled attempt to push a health and safety deregulation agenda.
Similar moves are occurring on the global stage. A draft framework document from the ILO promotes voluntary measures and self-regulation, a dramatic departure from its usual support for meaningful and enforceable regulation of workplace standards.
Why no new union rights?
At the September 2004 TUC Congress, unions gave a resolute "no" to the UK government's shift from enforcement towards voluntary approaches. Introducing the main health and safety motion, GMB general secretary Kevin Curran said union safety reps were "the success story of the last three decades" and added: "It's a genuine mystery to me why this fantastic contribution to society goes unrecognised by government."
He said government foot-dragging was because "our demands are at odds with the deregulatory agenda which this government seems determined to pursue." Curran added that rather than opt for greater safety rep involvement, better inspection and stronger enforcement, "the government is systematically undermining the health and safety system to reduce so-called burdens on business. And sadly, the chair of the Health and Safety Commission seems unable or unwilling to oppose this folly."
Curran said there were two straightforward choices - deregulation, or "a system - funded by a compulsory levy on employers - of support for safety reps, effective inspection and enforcement of strong laws that will deliver a reduction in deaths, injury and disease." Union delegates to Congress voted for the latter route, which will now form the basis of a union campaign strategy to be headed by TUC.
And Prospect, the union representing Health and Safety Executive inspectors and specialist staff, is backing the campaign. It says: "Current policies clearly aren't working - last year 25,000 people were seriously injured at work and fatalities rose to 235. Prospect calls on the government to consign its current policy of cost-cutting deregulation to the dustbin."
Lately, HSE has claimed its safety blueprint has been misunderstood, and that it wants to maintain enforcement but target it better and complement it with the advisory and voluntary measures.
CCA's Courtney Davis sees it differently: "The HSC and HSE management are now claiming that we've got the wrong end of the stick, that they will be maintaining current levels of inspection and enforcement and that it's all just a storm in a teacup. But the point is that current levels of inspection, investigation and enforcement are much too low. If they understand the importance of inspection and enforcement, and if they've looked at the evidence, then why haven't they stated publicly that they need more money for front line inspectors?
"In fact, they've done exactly the opposite. They've said that even if they did have more money they wouldn't employ more inspectors. So it's just disingenuous to say that we've got it all wrong."
So far there are few signs of HSC abandoning the deregulatory drive. At the July 2004 launch of HSC's annual report for 2003/04, HSC announced it had "achieved savings valued at £12.7m for the year." HSC chair Bill Callaghan commented: "HSE has had a successful year with a number of targets exceeded. The major task in the coming year is now to deliver the Strategy and the Commission is determined to do this in partnership with others."
However determined HSC is, it will find itself in difficulty. The Strategy has few supporters and plenty of detractors. A retreat might be humiliating, but at least it won't be deadly.
1. The work of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee. Fourth Report of Session 2003-04. Volume 1, HC 456, July 2004.
2. Economic security for a better world, ILO Socio-Economic Security Programme, International Labour Office, September 2004. 50 Swiss francs/£21.95. ISBN 92-2-115611-7. Free online summary [pdf] ILO Socio-Economic Security website
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