Cover art Mary
Big firms wanted the freedom to kill. They got it
[Hazards 91, August 2005]
Britain has got one of the most
unregulated economies in the industrial world. Tony Blair says so. But
his government is still embarking on a danger deregulation exercise
that could remove essential safety protections, says Hazards
editor Rory O’Neill.
CLICK ON THE IMAGE TO ENLARGE
We are living – and thanks to Britain’s hazardous workplaces,
frequently dying – in a topsy-turvy world. The sort of world where
it is seemingly impossible for skilled Whitehall mandarins to craft
a law to jail killer employers, even when they have a decade to sort
out the detail (Hazards 90).
The sort of world where the government pledges swift action on the perception
of compensation culture, a problem it admits does not exist (Hazards
90). Also announced in the 17 May 2005 Queen’s speech was similar
urgent action in this parliament to lift the “burden” of
red tape from business, despite Britain already being, at least for
business, a relatively lawless paradise.
On 24 May 2005, chancellor of the exchequer Gordon Brown told a Downing
Street meeting of business leaders he would introduce “a risk
based approach to regulation to break down barriers holding enterprise
He added: “In a risk based approach there is no inspection without
justification, no form filling without justification, and no information
requirements without justification. Not just a light touch but a limited
touch.” Under the chancellor’s plan, “businesses are
invited to propose areas of regulation and its administration that are
needlessly burdensome.” A Deregulation Bill is pencilled in for
the second session of parliament.
The chancellor has already promised to cut inspections by regulatory
agencies by 1 million a year, or a third. In terms of overall expenditure,
Health and Safety Commission/Executive (HSC/E) is the second largest
of the 63 national regulators, trailing only the Environment Agency.
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) made 206,000 “regulatory
contacts” last year. Tens of thousands fewer workplaces would
get to see an inspector each year if HSE took its share of the chancellor’s
planned inspection cutbacks.
like it’s 1995
The new approach outlined by Gordon Brown was informed by the
Hampton review of regulation and enforcement (1).
At the request of the chancellor, Philip Hampton asked business
“to identify ways in which the administrative burden of
regulation on businesses can be reduced, while maintaining or
improving regulatory outcomes.”
The Hampton report, published in May 2005, calls for an end
to “unnecessary” inspections, with resources instead
used to provide advice. The only evidence Hampton cites to demonstrate
health and safety is burdensome, however, is a February 2004
Institute of Directors (IoD) study – and even that found
half of respondents had no real problem with safety (2).
Hampton only found space in the bibliography for a larger May
2004 study from HSE showing over threequarters of businesses
believed health and safety did not hamper their business and
a similar proportion saying it was actually beneficial (3).
It’s just 11 years since a massive official review of
all UK health and safety legislation found health and safety
laws were not a burden on business (4).
In the mid-1990s, John Major promised a “bonfire of regulation”
in a move aimed “at building businesses not barriers.”
Health and safety was an early and important deregulation target,
the government signalled in the November 1993 Queen’s
A month earlier, the then HSC chair, Frank Davies, has announced
a review of 400 health and safety regulations was underway and
called for evidence on “the benefits and costs of health
and safety regulations… to ensure that these regulations
do not impose unreasonable burdens on business” (Hazards
45). The May 1994 report of this review (4)
was conclusive – it found that health and safety regulation
and enforcement was not a burden, prompting TUC to say this
“should mark the end of the deregulation fetish in health
By 1996, even Frank Davies – the business-backed HSC chair
- was convinced. In a leaked memo to government ministers, he
said: “Cutting the HSC does not reduce burdens on business”
The chancellor’s May 2005 statement caused consternation among
unions. TUC said it “will remain vigilant to ensure that proper
standards do not slip as a result of this initiative.”
Dai Hudd, assistant general secretary of HSE union Prospect, said the
regulation review announced by the chancellor must not turn into a “cowboy’s
He said: “Injuries and deaths at work increased last year and
we fear this trend will accelerate that process. The government must
respect the experience and expertise of staff in the frontline and not
follow a slavish employer-driven agenda. Effective regulation is not
just about being nice to business, it is about maintaining standards.”
Paul Kenny, acting general secretary of the union GMB, said: “Any
suggestion that we can build trust with employers who put profit and
cutting corners before the rights and safety of workers is complete
and utter nonsense. The road to the current legislation, which is totally
inadequate, is littered with the broken bones, the blood and the bodies
of workers killed by company negligence.”
Kenny added: “Mr Brown should go and talk to the widows and children
and widowers of people killed and maimed by company mismanagement, by
gross negligence of employers on health and safety”.
Bob Crow, general secretary of rail union RMT, said: “Gordon Brown
is wrong in his neo-conservative belief that unregulated business will
act responsibly and that reputation with customers and investors is
more important to behaviour that regulation. Inquiries after all the
recent major railway accidents have shown that the companies did act
irresponsibly leaving many people dead. Railways are high risk and will
only be safe if the risks are controlled and tightly regulated.”
And Ian Tasker of Scottish union federation STUC said the Work and Pensions
select committee in 2004 had agreed with unions and concluded rigorous
safety regulation and enforcement was necessary (Hazards 87), adding:
“We would urge the chancellor and the Labour government to concentrate
on delivering its previous commitment to protect workers before subscribing
to business leaders’ red tape myths”.
The government, though, is sticking to its guns. In a speech at the
Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) on 26 May 2005, prime minister
Tony Blair said: “Health and safety legislation is necessary to
protect people at work,” adding: “As the OECD and the IMF
have recently said, the UK is very lightly regulated by international
But he spoiled it a bit by picking out examples of sensible health and
safety measures he though were “absurd” – like a nurse
using a hoist to lift a patient who had fallen, a sentiment that runs
counter to the central theme of HSE’s high profile Backs! campaign
which says its aim “is to promote the use of lifting and handling
aids as a means of reducing the incidence of back injuries at work”.
“We cannot guarantee a risk-free life,” the prime minister
added, concluding: “We cannot respond to every accident by trying
to guarantee ever more tiny margins of safety. We cannot eliminate risk.
We have to live with it, manage it. Sometimes we have to accept: no-one
is to blame.”
The prime minister is right – you can’t make risks disappear.
But you can relocate them. So, if business is freed the burden of risk,
then most of that risk will shift to the workforce in the form of more
dangerous workplaces with less enforcement, more injuries and illnesses
with less compensation.
TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said he was “disappointed that
the prime minister failed to differentiate between these who chose to
take risks in their everyday lives, and those who have risks foisted
on them by their employer.”
Senior nurse and UNISON member Shelley Quantrill, who suffered
a severe back injury lifting
a hospital theatre table, has been awarded £29,739
compensation. No risk assessment was carried out on the task
by her employer South Tyneside Health Care NHS Trust.
TGWU member Susan Harvey, injured
trying to use a mobile hoist to move a disabled woman in her
home, has been awarded nearly £20,000
damages. The care worker sued Walsall Council over its failure
to carry out a proper risk assessment.
Maths teacher Aileen Gilmour, 62, has been awarded £55,000
compensation after slipping on a chip outside her school canteen.
She strained knee ligaments in
the fall at Mearns Castle High School, Newton Mearns, and was
unable to return to work. The judge ruled that East Renfrewshire
Council should have foreseen the risk and guarded against it.
Fiona Clark, a Metropolitan Police clerk, received £384,000
for a back injury sustained at
work. She had not been given any manual handling training and
there had been no risk assessment.
Averse to safety
Underpinning all these government pronouncements, are measures that
assume it is not injuries and ill-health that is the top priority for
workplace health and safety, but “red tape” and an irrational
fear of risk.
On 13 July 2005, the new health and safety minister, Lord
Hunt of Kings Heath, launched an online HSE debate “on the causes
of risk aversion in health and safety” (right).
The introduction to the HSE webpage asks: “So how do we
stop excessive risk aversion, but still protect people?”
This emphasis on “risk aversion” rather than “risk”
is not a matter of chance. The 1 million plus injured at work each year
are not in the boardrooms of British companies. But the people informing
government policy most certainly are.
The Hampton report, published in March 2005, and the template for the
government’s deregulatory plans, was the product of an enquiry
that solicited business opinion.
Even Hampton’s support for higher fines for safety offences is
not entirely good news because it is tied to an assertion that higher
fines “improve compliance and reduce the number of inspections
required.” A 2004 research report from the Centre for Corporate
Accountability presented compelling evidence that higher fines will
not have a deterrent effect unless an employer believes there is a realistic
prospect of getting caught through effective inspection (5).
A cut in real terms in HSE’s budget in both the 2002 and 2004
funding rounds means HSE is already struggling to retain trained and
experienced staff. It has now dropped the postgraduate diploma in health
and safety that new recruits were expected to obtain before they became
full-fledged inspectors. Instead trainees will receive on-the-job training
from already over-stretched inspectors, topped off with an NVQ.
The deadly reality
of risk at work
On 13 July 2005, the day health and safety minister Lord Hunt
announced the launch of HSE’s “risk aversion”
online debate, an inquest in Lough was considering the horrific
death of 34-year-old Colin Blades.
Colin died of massive injuries after a mechanical press delivered
a force of 653 pounds per square inch on to his head and shoulders
as he attempted to clear a blockage. The inquest was told how
Linpac had been in breach of workplace safety law because the
configuration of the machine made access to its interior possible.
The production operative at Louth-based packaging company Linpac
Containers Ltd was half-way through a 12-hour, 6pm to 6am shift
when the tragedy happened on 4 August 2004.
Paul Day, who worked with Mr Blades, said there were several
reasons why the tragedy may have happened. “What you have
got to realise is when you have got an agency worker with you
on those machines your workload in theory doubles,” he
said. He said that because Mr Blades had been working a “crossover”
shift he would be “invariably more tired”.
Health and Safety Executive inspector Simon Jones told the inquest
Mr Blades was deemed an “experienced and safe” worker
by his factory colleagues. “Part of managing health and
safety is to undertake risk assessments on machines,”
he said. “As part of that the company should look at the
guarding standards on the machines in its factory to ensure
you cannot get access to dangerous parts of the machinery.”
Retreating from the front
The Health and Safety Executive stole a lead on other regulators by
being the poster boy for the government’s new risk tolerant approach.
The HSC policy was spelled out in its February 2004 strategy (6).
The document indicated HSE would review its inspection and enforcement
strategy and concentrate more resources on advice, “providing
effective support free from the fear of enforcement” (Hazards
Launching its latest annual report (7)
on 7 July 2005, HSC chair Bill Callaghan said: “The endorsement
of the Commission’s strategy by the Hampton review was particularly
welcome, as was the support for higher penalties. We must continue to
seek and maintain the right balance of enforcement and advice.”
He added: “We will continue to make the case for sensible risk
control measures that are sensibly applied, a process key to securing
compliance with health and safety regulations.”
A March 2004 internal HSC paper, 'Becoming a modern regulator' (8),
acknowledged “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 added
that "HSE has responded positively to the debate” (Hazards
The UK’s safety system is not in the best of health. Figures for
2003/4 showed workplace fatalities were up, major injuries are up and
injuries requiring more than three days off work are up (9).
There were 235 fatal injuries to workers in 2003/04, an increase of
4 per cent on the 2002/03 figure. The number of reported major injuries
was 30,666, up 9 per cent. And reported over-three-day injuries to employees
increased by 0.7 per cent, to 129,143.
Figures for 2004/5 showed that while overall fatalities
fell to 220, this was largely due to a dramatic drop in service sector
deaths, with deaths in the high risk, HSE enforced sectors were not
showing this encouraging trend. Deaths in agriculture dropped from 44
in 2003/4 to 42 in 2004/5, but the earlier figure included 21 deaths
in the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster. Manufacturing deaths soared
from 30 to 41, up over 25 per cent. Construction deaths increased from
71 to 72.
Meanwhile, enforcement by the Health and Safety Executive dropped off
dramatically in 2003/04, with the safety watchdog taking almost 1,000
fewer enforcement actions (Hazards 89).
HSE issued 11,295 improvement and prohibition notices, down from 13,324
the previous year. It brought 982 prosecution cases which it says “is
around the level of recent years” and up six per cent on 2002/03
– although that was 15 per cent down on the year before (10).
The 2004/05 HSC annual report acknowledges that the watchdog has failed
to meet all its major targets to reduce occupational and ill-health.
It says there is “no clear evidence of overall progress since
the base year in the incidence rate of fatalities and major injuries,”
adds that for work days lost to work-related ill-health and injury “the
data for 2003/04 shows no statistically significant progress since 2000-02,
the closest available to the base year,” and says “there
is no clear evidence of net progress since the base year with the incidence
rate of work-related ill health.”
Despite the government’s frequently stated and strongly
worded concern about unnecessary, burdensome rules and an alleged
culture of risk aversion in the UK, the majority of employers
appear to be positive about workplace safety. Three out of four
employers believe health and safety requirements benefit their
companies as a whole, according to a MORI survey published by
HSE in April 2004 (3).
The survey of 3,000 members of the working and non-working public
and 500 employers, found that employers rate health and safety
in their top two most important workplace issues. Most employers
also said they see health and safety as good for business and
disagree that it puts a strain on profits.
The majority of employers said that health and safety requirements
benefit their company as a whole (73 per cent), save money in
the long-term (64 per cent) and defend them against unjustified
compensation claims (57 per cent).
“Most employers also disagree with the contentions that
health and safety requirements hamper their business (78 per
cent) and are biased against small
businesses (54 per cent),” the report said.
This study is not cited in the Hampton report, although it is
listed in the bibliography. Hampton instead cites a smaller
February 2004 Institute of Directors survey (2),
based on just 427 responses, that concluded “over 50 per
cent” of businesses believed health and safety was a “significant”
or “major” concern.
Not mentioned in the Hampton report was the IoD finding that
fewer than 1 in 5 businesses considered health and safety to
have a major impact, or that almost half of respondents (48.7
per cent) said health and safety had only a “negligible”
or “slight” impact on their business.
The prime minister has promised to make an assault on “red tape”
a priority for the UK’s presidency of the European Union, which
runs from 1 July until the end of 2005. One of the first acts of the
government’s EU presidency was an 11-12 July Informal Council
of Ministers meeting in Cardiff, hosted by trade and industry secretary
Alan Johnson, to discuss “ways to cut back on red tape and regulation.”
The European Commission has already started its own review – and
again, like the Hampton review, the workers at the dangerous end of
workplace risks are not being asked for their views.
The introduction to the EU-wide online “Interactive Policy Making”
survey is headed “Tired of being tied up in red tape?” (11).
It goes on: “Unnecessary rules and red tape stand in the way of
sustainable growth, deter business investment and hinder job creation.”
This consultation will “ask business how they feel the business
environment in the EU can be improved and the administrative burden
The short tick box questionnaire requires the business respondents to
select one or more of 17 categories, including health and safety, where
rules and procedures are causing problems. A respondent must object
to some rules or procedures or the form will not be accepted. There
is no possibility of saying the rules and procedures do not cause a
problem or are infact helpful. By design, 100 per cent of respondents
to the EU survey will find some aspect of EU law burdensome. All it
takes is a click of the mouse.
The prime minister, in his May 2005 IPPR speech, said if we regulate
to eliminate risks “we lose out in business to India and China,
who are prepared to accept the risks.”
But accepting these risks would also have a high, almost certainly deadly,
price. The fatal accident rate in both China and India is running at
or above 10 work-related fatalities per 100,000 workers each year, more
than double the rate for established market economies. The workplace
fatality rate in the UK in 2003/04 was 0.81 deaths per 100,000 workers,
less than a tenth the rate in either China or India.
While most evidence, including HSE surveys, shows business does not
find health and safety regulation and enforcement a significant impediment
to doing business, the real danger of the current assault on safety
enforcement and inspection is that we needless abandon hard-won workplace
standards and safe approaches and gain nothing but more workplace fatalities,
more diseases and all the related human and financial costs (Hazards
But it is not just actual in regulation or enforcement that will impact
on health and safety. The repetition of the message that the laws are
red tape, enforcement and inspections are burdens and combined the form,
in the chancellor’s words, “barriers holding business back”
tells business health and safety is not a top priority.
HSE this year failed to meet any of its major “revitalising health
and safety” targets – deaths were up, accident were up and
no headway was made on occupational ill-health or work-related sickness
absence. It appears some of the damage may have been done already.
A 2005 report from the International Labour Organisation noted
“fatal accidents at work rose from 73,500 a year to 90,500
in China, where there were nearly half a million work-related
deaths in 2001” (12).
A new analysis for the report, using 2001
data, found that industrialised countries with an economically
active population of 419.5m, had 16,000 fatal workplace accidents
in 2001. India, with a similar sized economically active group
(444m) had 40,000 workplace fatalities. The figures for China
were 90,500 deaths from an economically active population of
ILO comments: “While it is estimated that 2.2 per cent
of deaths in industrialised countries are caused by workplace
related accidents or illnesses, the figure in China is 2.8 per
1. Reducing administrative burdens:
effective inspection and enforcement, Philip Hampton, HM Treasury,
March 2005. more
2. Real impact of red tape: Institute
of Directors, February 2004. [pdf]
3. Attitudes towards health and safety:
a quantitative survey of stakeholder opinion by MORI Social Research
Institute, April 2004. [pdf]
4. Review of health and safety: Summary
of findings and of the Commission’s response, May 1994.
5. Making companies safe: What works?,
Centre for Corporate Accountability, September 2004. [pdf]
6. The strategy for workplace health
and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond. HSC, February 2004.
7. Health and Safety Commission Annual
Report and the Health and Safety Commission/Executive Accounts 2004/05.
8. Becoming a modern regulator,
HSC, 23 March 2004.
9. Health and safety statistics highlights,
2003/04, HSE, November 2004. more
10. Offences and penalties
report 2003-2004, HSE. more
• HSE Enforcement pages
11. Tired of being tied up in red tape?
European Commission “Interactive Policy Making” survey.
12. World Day for Safety and Health
at Work 2005: A background paper, ILO InFocus programme on SafeWork,
be liable for work deaths, says TUC
Individual directors must be made liable for accidents and
injuries sustained at work if there is to be any change in
the UK’s poor safety record, the TUC has said.
Speaking at a 13 June 2005 joint TUC and Centre for Corporate
Accountability conference on corporate manslaughter, general
secretary Brendan Barber welcomed the draft bill on corporate
killing (Hazards 90). “By focusing on the wider management
failings within an organisation, the draft bill will hopefully
make the prosecution of negligent organisations more likely.
It is important to emphasise that no one is talking about
prosecutions for the sake of it, however we do need the threat
of prosecutions if corporate responsibility on health and
safety is to be improved.”
However, Brendan Barber also called on ministers to make amendments
to the current bill, or introduce new legislation to make
individual directors liable where their own management failure
has resulted in staff being killed or injured at work. “Under
the draft bill only corporations will be able to be held to
account. That leads to two problems. The first is that it
is not corporations that kill people. A corporation is just
a piece of paper. It is actually the decisions of those at
the top of organisations, or their lack of actions, that lead
to deaths. The other problem is that you can’t put a
corporation in prison.”
for Corporate Accountability
Risk aversion row
The Health and Safety Executive has launched an online debate
“on the causes of risk aversion in health and safety,”
a move which is certain to highlight divisions about what some
see as a “business-friendly” shift in the safety
Launching the initiative, health and safety minister Lord Hunt
of Kings Heath said: “We must concentrate our efforts
on the big issues that cause real harm and suffering and remember
that excessive risk aversion does damage too. It hits organisational
efficiency, competitiveness, restricts personal freedoms and
damages the cause of protecting people from real harm. We know
that something is seriously wrong when we read stories of schools
asking children to wear goggles to play conkers in the playground.”
The majority of early contributions to HSE’s online debate
have been highly critical of comments from the minister and
HSE. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said the emphasis on
risk aversion when over a million employees are injured every
year “is almost surreal”. He added: “It does
surprise me when people talk about risk aversion. Companies
may be averse to taking some financial risks, but they do not
seem to be averse to taking risks with other people’s
Hilda Palmer of Greater Manchester Hazards Centre said: “If
the issue is more about children crossing the road, playing
conkers and hanging baskets, then let the Ministry for hanging
baskets, conkers and road crossing deal with it, but to have
the HSE - the workplace enforcement agency, in charge of failing
to achieve Revitalising Health and Safety targets - host this
debate now is an enormous insult to workers and their families.”
Have your say! To register online and tell HSE what you think
about “risk aversion”, go to the HSE
risk debate webpage