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What we told Jane Kennedy Minister of Work
What we told Bill Callaghan Chair of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC)
HSC Vision 2010: An enforcement-lite
The government has billed HSC's new safety blueprint as a "radical new strategy." Business loves its hands off, no hassle, no commitments language. But for you and me, the new strategy offers nothing new and abandons hard won protections, warns Hazards editor Rory O'Neill.
The Health and Safety Commission's new long-term blueprint for Britain's workplaces is certainly "radical." HSC says there will be no new resources, less enforcement, a shift to "self regulation" and a focus on managing and not eliminating risks.
HSC's February 2004 Strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond,  rushed through after an unprecedented quickie three month consultation, has been warmly received by employers' organisations.
Manufacturers' organisation EEF says it welcomes "HSC's efforts to reshape its own business to address the challenges of the 21st century." The Chemical Industries Association, an energetic advocate of self-regulation, says it is "a major shift towards a more proactive approach in addressing emerging workplace risks."
However, the new HSC vision has been described as "a retreat from regulation" by the Institute of Employment Rights,  resource "rationing" in The Lancet  and was rubbished in advance by HSE inspectors' union Prospect as a cost-cutting deregulation agenda (Hazards 84).
So, why the fuss? Because HSC is stealthily manoeuvring HSE 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.
And there is nothing to soften the blow. There will be no new Safety Bill to give UK workplaces added benefit from the livesaving union safety role (Hazards 78).
Radical action was needed. Just not this radical action.
Dying for work in 2004
This year has seen the worst spate of major workplace accidents in over a decade, including the two worst incidents since the Piper Alpha oil rig fire in 1988.
This retreat from regulation of workplace safety is placing the lives of British workers at risk. Several factors are at play - the casualisation of work, a government reluctance to introduce or enforce health and safety laws and a policy that promotes "self-regulation" of safety.
The Health and Safety Commission admits work-related ill-health is "likely" to have risen since 1999. At the same time, it is reducing the number of workplace inspections by the Health and Safety Executive, shifting to a new role "free from the fear of enforcement" and discouraging inspection in workplaces it does not consider among the most high risk - despite a current record that means most workers will never see an HSE inspector, even if they suffer a major injury.
Investigation levels are expected to fall from the already lamentable 19 per cent of major injuries investigated in 2001/02 to under 15 per cent under the new investigation regime.
Unions had accepted the system needed reform and had their own, well-argued wish list (Hazards 85). Safety reps need a right of access to members they represent when they are based in a third party's workplace. Employers should have to respond in writing to safety reps.
Roving reps are a union idea that has been proven to work (Hazards 84). Safety reps could offer a massive boost to safety enforcement if they were given the right to issue Provision Improvement Notices (PINs). A 2001 HSC consultation found there was strong support for both (Hazards 85).
The November 2003 HSC decision to abandon plans to harmonise the massively successful union Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and the utterly hopeless Health (Consultation with Employees) Regulations 1996 - the watered down "safety rep-lite" version operating where there are no recognised unions - also saw the end of any hope for a Safety Bill and the immediate prospect of any new rights.
Instead, HSC has fashioned what it expressly states is "not a plan," couched in an unholy mix of sanctimonious sermon- and lifestyle guru-speak.
The strategy will "draw on stakeholders," be "proactive" in managing health risks, "share the vision," and will "focus on our core business."
It says "our vision is to gain recognition of health and safety as a cornerstone of a civilised society," but gives no indication how a watchdog that has neither teeth nor bark might go about effecting this change. And the whole package will offer "sensible health and safety controls which are sensibly applied," something a casual observer might have expected to be a "cornerstone" of HSE's existing practice.
Andy Watterson, an occupational health professor at Stirling University, commenting on the new HSC strategy, said: "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."
HSE inspectors' union Prospect predicted in September 2003 the new HSC language was code for a strategy shift from enforcement to a more softly-softly advisory role (Hazards 84). And Morris Greenberg, an occupational health specialist and former HSE doctor, writing in The Lancet,  said the strategy amounted to "rationing" and accuses HSC and the government of not providing the data necessary to justify cutbacks.
Whatever HSE does, it will have to do it on the cheap. HSE's budget has been frozen until 2006, a 10 per cent cut in real terms. The £260 million allocated to HSE this year amounts to less than 20p a worker per week.
Recognising that enforcement resources are "spread too thinly" and there are no longer the resources to do the job right, HSC has embarked on a project to determine how best to do enforcement wrong.
HSC is not tinkering at the edges. This is a slash and burn policy that could mortally wound an already reeling safety agency.
HSC's strategy document says it will "discourage" use of resources and won't "intervene proactively" in workplaces "where the risks are of low significance, well understood and properly managed." It's not clear who is left to be removed from HSE's active scrutiny, however. Most workers are unlikely to see an HSE inspector in a working lifetime - even if they suffer a major injury.
TUC notes in its evidence to the 2004 House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into the work of HSC/E: "On average, a registered premise that is not seen as high risk will receive an inspection every 20 years. The number of contacts with employers has been falling steadily since 1995." 
Fewer than 1 in 5 major injuries (19 per cent) were investigated in 2000/01, and fewer than one in every 20 "over three day" injuries (4.5 per cent).
Instead of acknowledging that employers, largely free from the threat of investigation or prosecution, were not voluntarily doing enough to make work healthier, HSE has decided the answer is more self-regulation.
The strategy document says HSE is to develop "a clear evidence-based intervention strategy," however it has already decided HSE will be withdrawing from a range of enforcement activities. The "evidence" on which this decision is supposedly based doesn't exist, however.
In a September 2003 report published in error by HSE - it was posted on the HSE website by mistake, insiders say - HSE deputy director general Justin McCracken noted the shift was based on an HSE "belief" alone because "we agree that at present our evaluation of the effectiveness of different approaches and techniques is not sufficiently well developed to allow it to be more than this." 
It would be more correct to say that the available evidence doesn't fit the available strategy. The role of managerial leadership in determining workplace safety outcomes, [7a] a research report published by HSE in 2003, concluded that HSE's cherished "safety pays" argument for self-regulation is seriously flawed (Hazards 82).
The report notes: "The main vehicle used by the HSE for cultivating this culture of self-regulation rests upon proving the commercial advantage of improving health and safety performance." It concludes the "evidence suggests that the 'safety pays' argument is unlikely to be effective in motivating managers to action to reduce injury or illness."
This could be because companies fear neither penalties for breaches of the law - few cases are prosecuted and fines are generally small - nor paying the true cost of work related ill-health. Health care and rehabilitation costs are defrayed to the taxpayer. And while companies have an absolute duty to their shareholders to maximise returns, they have only a qualified duty to their workforce to minimise work-related ill-health.
An earlier report from HSE, the 2001, The impact of HSE - a review, concluded: "A number of studies shed light on issues surrounding how HSE achieves maximum impact. Although this was not directly part of our remit it seems sensible to report the main findings, if only in passing. In so doing we look at issues related to the role of regulation and enforcement as a factor motivating employers to take action on health and safety.
"The evaluations of specific legislation generally
concluded that compliance with the law was the most important reason
that employers took actions to improve their health and safety practices
and procedures... The evidence therefore seems to suggest that there
are at least two related factors at work here: The fear of being taken
to court and/or receiving claims for compensation if found to be in
breach of the law; the acceptance that the law is an expression of what
should be done and that there is a moral duty to meet it." [7b]
Even well-established and well-resourced voluntary systems fail to deliver. One of the most widespread and widely cited voluntary compliance initiatives is the chemical industry's "Responsible Care" programme.
An April 2004 US report, Irresponsible care: How the chemical industry fails to protect the public from chemical accidents,  found the voluntary Responsible Care scheme, created by the industry as a measure to avoid regulation and enforcement, had little impact on accident rates.
David LeGrande, a health and safety expert with the Communications Workers of America, said the report "shows that voluntary measures do not work." BP, a British multinational and Responsible Care participant, topped the PIRG report's accident list.
The new look HSE will go easy on some sometimes dangerous employers, says the HSC strategy document, offering "effective support free from the fear of enforcement."
But while HSC is now willing to offer an amnesty to potentially dangerous employers, it is showing less willingness to accommodate the needs of their victims.
TUC safety officer Hugh Robertson says HSC and HSE "are not aggressive enough in pushing the moral justice of the importance of preventing people getting killed, injured or made ill by work. At times they come across as viewing as a burden new regulations aimed at preventing injury.
"They should be our leading ambassadors on health and safety and need to portray a sense of pride in their work." 
Morality is taking a backseat in the all new HSC, however. The 2010 strategy document even has an explicit commitment to "robust" action to tackle those who are "over-zealous" over health and safety.
This would appear to be a government response to a campaign by business and parts of the press against HSE and safety enforcement.
In the February 2004 week Network Rail was fined in two separate cases for criminal and ultimately fatal breaches of safety law and just days before four rail maintenance workers were killed in Cumbria taking workplace rail deaths to a 13-year high, transport secretary Alistair Darling told an 11 February conference of rail bosses the industry was "over-cautious" about safety at the expense of performance.
His 200-strong audience voted by nine to one in favour of a proposition which said safety had gone "too far away" from commonsense and cost-effectiveness.
His statement came just a week after the deaths on Morecambe beach of what is now thought to total 23 cockle pickers, Britain's worst workplace disaster since the Piper Alpha oil rig disaster in 1988.
The first "deliverable" under the new strategy was an HSC statement on worker involvement and consultation because "there are not enough employers who properly involve and consult their workers on health and safety." 
The document - a non-binding, non-legal statement clarifying a non-binding, non-legal strategy - is what HSC managed to deliver in place of the now abandoned employee information and consultation law that was the subject of a three-year consultation.
Despite acknowledging the "valuable contribution" of trade unions and the need to "expand the base of employee involvement to cover the entire workforce," the new strategy does not address the union concern that employers have no legal duty to respond to safety reps.
Nor does it explain why HSE has never prosecuted an employer for failing to consult with workers. Or why it is withdrawing support for some of its advisory committees, which TUC says are "the visible result of trade union involvement" in HSC's structures.
At the moment three of the most effective of these advisory committees are under threat, the occupational health committee and the two education committees. Members of the occupational health committee were not consulted about plans to axe it; the education committees were responsible for one of the most important HSC initiatives in recent years, the Safety Representatives' Charter. 
One lesson HSC has resolutely failed to learn, is that it is union resources, training and safety reps that make health and safety consultation and involvement effective (11). The parallel "representatives of employee safety" scheme for workplaces without recognised unions has been an utter flop.
It is difficult to see how HSC after this spectacular failure hopes to secure "renewed impetus to encourage greater worker involvement and consultation," "develop new ways to achieve it" and a "voluntary expansion of workplace health and safety reps."
It has slammed the door on the one thing that would have guaranteed success - new rights for union safety reps, particularly a national network of union trained and resourced roving safety reps.
Workplace health and safety is not a priority for government. Seven safety ministers in seven years is testament enough to that. Business doesn't like it, and the Labour government likes business.
As Morris Greenberg puts it: "Of late, occupational health and safety have been subject to ministerial inattention, so that nothing short of a token of intent by the Secretary of State to establish a committee of inquiry fully to review health and safety at work will be sufficient to convince that there is a commitment to occupational health.
"As it is likely that demands will always exceed resources, good quality data will be needed by the Health and Safety Commission to inform their value judgments for rationing and allocating resources." 
TUC, meanwhile, hasn't given up on its plans for new legal rights for safety reps and is calling for an urgent meeting with new safety minister Jane Kennedy.
"TUC is 100 per cent in favour of strengthening safety reps' rights," said Hugh Robertson. "This is the only way HSC will meet its revitalising targets and it is very shortsighted of them not to want to utilise the expertise of safety reps at this time.
"Only by recognising the value of safety reps can any real progress be made in developing a genuine safety culture in the workplace."
And if the government and HSC want to cry poverty, he says, they should consider this. The government spends eight times as much each year on the industrial injuries compensation scheme as it does on HSE. Decent, vigorous, well-resourced safety enforcement might even be both the healthy and the cost-effective choice.
1. The strategy for
workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond.
2. Health and safety revitalised or reversed? IER, 2004.
3. Morris Greenberg. Occupational
health and safety proposals: 2004-10 . The
Lancet, volume 363, Number 9410, 28 February 2004.
4. Achieving the revitalising health and safety targets: Statistical progress report. HSE, November 2003.
5. The House of Commons Works and Pension Select Committee inquiry into the work of the Health and Safety Commission and Health and Safety Executive, Memorandum by the Trades Union Congress, January 2004.
6. Regulation, enforcement, inspection and what we will do. Paper by Justin McCracken for the HSE board, September 2003. [pdf]
7a. The role of managerial leadership in determining workplace safety outcomes, HSE Research Report, RR044, 2003.
7b. The impact of the
HSE/C: A review, HSE
Research Report, RR385, 2001.
10. Safety Representatives' Charter. Higher and Further Education Advisory Committee and Schools Education Advisory Committee. On the HSE workers' webpage: [pdf]
Nine workers are known to have been killed and 40 injured, many seriously, in a devastating 11 May plastics factory blast in Glasgow.
Early indications are that an industrial oven exploded at Stockline Plastics in the Maryhill area of the city. Police have named the deceased as Ann Trench, 34; Margaret Brownlie, 49; Tracy McErlane, 27; Peter Ferguson, 52; Annette Doyle, 24; Thomas McAulay, 41; Kenneth Murray, 45; and company director Stewart McColl, 60. A ninth victim, so far unnamed, was pulled from the rubble on Friday.
There has been extensive press speculation about possible safety problems at the plant - it is known that the company was served a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) improvement notice in February 2000 for failing to maintain adequate risk assessments on hazardous substances.
Scotlands top union body STUC has written to the Health and Safety Executive seeking clarification on health and safety enforcement activity at the factory.
Ian Tasker, STUC health and safety officer, said: 'This is the worst industrial accident in the past 25 years and the STUC considers it a duty, both to the workers in this factory and throughout Scotland, to work to ensure that health and safety procedures and enforcement minimise risks at all times.'
He added that STUCs first thoughts were for the bereaved, the injured and all those affected by the tragedy. Scotlands first minister Jack McConnell has promised a full and thorough inquiry into the blast.
An HSE investigation is underway.
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