The state we're in
Hazards issue 109, January-March 2010
The fatality figures were presented as good news. And the “record low” 180 workplace fatalities announced by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in October 2009  has to be good news – but only up a point. HSE’s claim that the “statistics show there has been a significant reduction in the numbers of people killed, injured or suffering work related ill-health from April 2008 to March 2009” is just plain wrong, because HSE counts only a tiny fraction of work deaths.
TORY PLOY Conservative leader David Cameron thinks attacking health and safety will win votes. Unions say it will cost lives.
Workplace road transport deaths aren’t there. Deaths of workers at sea and in air incidents aren’t there. Combined these figures dwarf the HSE figures, with the roads figure alone topping 1,000 deaths. And HSE has never published a figure for occupational disease deaths each year. Hazards did the sums, and came up with a figure in the region of 50,000 deaths each year . Its ill-health estimates miss entire categories of common occupational diseases, and chronically under-estimate others.
There’s no credible evidence that either figure is declining – the biggest contributor, asbestos related-deaths – is known to be increasing, and now claims at least 5,000 lives in Britain every year. Add to that the dirty jobs we export to developing nations – like some e-waste recycling and shipbreaking – and it become apparent the harm stemming from the UK’s dangerous work choices is much greater than the statistics show.
And there’s another issue. UK safety enforcement at work – or to phrase it differently, justice at work – has been in long term decline.
In 2007/08, just 7.3 per cent of the 32,810 fatal and major injuries – or fewer than 1-in-every-13 – reported to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) resulted in an investigation by the watchdog . For major injuries alone, the chance of an HSE investigation was lower still, with just 6.5 per cent investigated.
Six figure payout for injury
HSE wouldn’t probe
An electrical engineer who had his left leg amputated below the knee after falling from a ladder in Rotherham has been awarded £450,000 in compensation. Keith Waring fell 13ft off the ladder on to a block paved patio, seriously injuring his left ankle. The case led to criticism of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) role, after campaigning magazine Hazards revealed HSE had been informed of the September 2002 incident, but had refused to investigate because it was not considered serious enough (Hazards 99).
Keith has to wear a prosthesis on his left leg, as well as an external fixator on his right leg. He said: “The simple fact is that the accident should never have happened, and it would never have happened if my employer had given me the correct training and safety equipment for the job in hand.” Keith, who has said he felt let down by HSE, was working for Rotherham-based company Rhino, now known as Steal-Master UK Limited and which is now in liquidation. HSE’s inspection rate for major injuries has dropped off dramatically since Keith Waring was injured.
Criminal law experts Steve Tombs and Dave Whyte describe the situation as the “collapse of enforcement”. In a January 2010 paper in the British Journal of Criminology , they note: “Investigations and inspections have fallen at an unprecedented rate as political and resource pressures have taken their toll on the day-to-day work of the inspectorate; the percentage falls in enforcement activities, already from low absolute levels, can hardly be described as anything other than a collapse.”
The paper adds: “The extent of this decline would simple not be sustainable in most other areas of law enforcement – imagine the efforts of a Chief Constable, for example, to defend declines in investigations of violent interpersonal assault, or falls in prosecutions of apprehended burglars, where these certainly would be represented as a collapse in enforcement, which, no doubt would cause a political furore.”
Still, the incomplete statistics are a platform for HSE – and the government – to claim this is about as safe as it gets at work.
In her January 2010 announcement that the UK is to give official recognition to Workers’ Memorial Day from 28 April 2010, work and pensions secretary Yvette Cooper repeated the stock line that “the UK has one of the best health and safety records in the world” .
That of course depends on what you record. Even if you discount the shortcomings in HSE statistics, a rounder evaluation of the UK performance shows the country in a less flattering light. The UK does not make Europe’s top 20 for occupational health and safety performance, according to the Health and Safety Risk Index (HSRI), published by risk analysts Maplecroft in January 2010 .
NEW TECHNOLOGY This Nigerian worker, in front of a mountain of e-waste from developed nations, contemplates his working conditions. Recycling poisons
Rather than base its assessment primarily on injury trends – HSE’s tactic – HSRI scores performance across eight indicators, including work related fatalities and injuries, number of accidents causing work absences, number of deaths from work related diseases, expenditure on health, life expectancy, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and the total number of ILO conventions ratified. Using these broader yardsticks, the UK managed just 30th in the world, out of 176 countries assessed.
It is not the first time this type of more detailed analysis has suggested the UK’s claims may lack substance. ‘Economic security for a better world’, a September 2004 report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), used a detailed "work security index" to rate nations for health and safety performance . The UK came 21st out of the 23 developed nations included in ILO study, ahead of only the US and New Zealand. It also failed to make the global top 10 on safety outcomes.
It could be worse, and in all likelihood it will be if the Conservatives are elected in the 2010 general election.
In a 1 December 2009 speech titled ‘We will reduce burden and impact of health and safety’ , Conservative leader David Cameron picked up a theme raised by shadow business secretary Kenneth Clarke in October 2009 . Cameron called for an end to the UK's “over-the-top” health and safety culture, saying it had created a “stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear.” He told a Policy Exchange conference: “I think we'd all concede that something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade.”
Shock global safety ranking for the UK
The Health and Safety Risk Index (HSRI) prepared by Maplecroft, a UK firm that assesses global risks to business, assessed the occupational health and safety performance of 176 countries . The UK is ranked the 30 safest nation, placing it at the mid-point of the “low risk” group. Among the 30 OECD nations, the UK is ranked at a lowly 20th – although some other major OECD nations have worse still rankings, including the USA, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
Using data sources including the International Labour Office (ILO), World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Bank, HSRI scored performance on work related fatalities and injuries, number of accidents causing work absences, number of deaths from work related diseases, expenditure on health, life expectancy, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and the total number of ILO conventions ratified.
Worldwide, Denmark achieves the best occupational health and safety ranking, followed by Luxembourg, Switzerland, Sweden and Finland. According to the research, nine countries fall into the “extreme risk” category, with the Democratic Republic of Congo worst rated, followed by Nigeria, Ethiopia and Bangladesh.
Alyson Warhurst, chief executive of Maplecroft and a professor at Warwick University’s business school, commented: “A safe and healthy working environment is vital. Organisations should ensure that best practice is observed not only in their own operations, but throughout their supply chains, to increase competitive advantage and reduce the risk of complicity in human and labour rights violations.”
The Tory leader said he had asked former Conservative trade secretary Lord Young “to lead an extensive review on this subject for the Conservative Party,” adding: “He has a track record of deregulation and cutting bureaucracy... And he will look at everything from the working of the Health and Safety Executive, to the nature of our health and safety laws, litigation and the insurance industry.”
What Cameron didn’t mention was that as plain David Young, Lord Young’s track record involved performing precisely the same exercise for Margaret Thatcher in 1985. After a costly and very lengthy review he had to concede the system wasn’t in fact over-regulated or over-enforced at all.
The new Tory "earned autonomy" deregulation proposals – near indistinguishable from the measures the Conservatives had hoped to introduce after Lord Young’s first review, but which disappeared after a death during a self-regulation experiment with the construction giant Costain’s - include using inspection opt-outs to "tame" HSE . The continued existence of HSE is not guaranteed, the Conservatives say.
The Tory move comes as even the US, the birthplace and poster boy for voluntary alternatives to health and safety enforcement, accelerates a sharp reversal of the policy because it has been proven to be a deadly diversion.
The US policy switch, placing a renewed emphasis on enforcement, is evidence driven. A 4 January 2010 news release from the US government’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), for example, announced mining deaths in the US fell to an all-time low in 2009. Stronger enforcement and the tougher mine safety rules passed in 2006 were given as key reasons why .
MSHA’s Joseph A Main said a major factor responsible was better enforcement of the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 and continued implementation of the MINER Act, introduced in 2006 after a series of mine disasters. The law’s introduction followed a high profile scandal about the role in the deaths of a lack of enforcement of mine safety and the inadequacy of penalties for even egregious safety offences in US mines.
How the Tories intend to kill off safety
Rather than repairing a tottering regulator, the Tories appear intent on dismantling the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). A Conservative government would permit firms to opt-out from HSE inspections, with qualifying firms allowed to bar the watchdog from their premises.
A Tory policy document, ‘Regulation in the post-bureaucratic age’,  a Green Paper announced by shadow business secretary Ken Clarke at the party’s October 2009 conference, says “the powers of government inspectors will be drastically curbed” with firms allowed to arrange “their own, externally audited inspections instead.” Its aim of “taming regulators” would include “replacing regulator-run public teams of inspectors with a model closer to financial controls and audits.”
But Ken Clarke may not be content with just hobbling HSE. He may do away with it entirely. In his 6 October 2009 Tory party conference speech , he said: “We will give each regulator and quango a ‘sunset clause’. That means they will automatically cease to exist after a set period unless they can prove their continuing usefulness.” The policy paper says during the first turn of a Conservative government “all regulators will be re-assessed and their duties reviewed.”
Even while HSE survives, its role under the Conservatives would be dramatically diminished. The policy paper notes: “Well run companies would employ professionally qualified experts in, for example health and safety or food safety, in the same way as they use accountants for a financial function to ensure that the correct internal processes are in place, and that reported results are reliable.”
Jump through a couple of hoops and the miniscule chance of an HSE inspection or any official scrutiny – and with it, any real prospect of a firm being brought to account for criminal breaches of health and safety law – will disappear entirely. Instead firms could apply for “earned autonomy” the policy paper says. It adds: “Any organisation which has undertaken a co-regulation review and has published an independently audited statement that it satisfies the required regulatory outcomes, would be allowed to refuse entry to official inspectors in anything other than an emergency.” Commenting on the Tory’s leader’s speech, TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “The idea that employers are being over-zealous in their application of health and safety regulation is simply not true. The reality is exactly the opposite - last year 246,000 people were injured at work. Neither does the UK have an excess of regulation - there were more than twice as many health and safety regulations and laws 35 years ago than there are now.”
STUC general secretary Grahame Smith said the Tory leader’s speech was “deeply offensive” to the injured and bereaved. “David Cameron has sent a chilling message to the working people in the UK that any future Conservative government will attack the health and safety laws that trade unions have spent decades fighting for,” he added. “We have witnessed what poor regulation has done for our finance sector and the economy. We do not want to see this attack on health and safety legislation having a similar catastrophic effect on human lives. Our economy will recover. Individuals killed at work and their families never recover from the consequence of poor health and safety regulation.”
Mr Smith concluded: “We would say to David Cameron if you want to learn about the true consequences of health and safety failures read Hazards magazine and come to Scotland and meet families who have lost loved ones due to health and safety failures by employers. Don’t subscribe to the trivial nonsense which is churned out by sections of the media.”
Health and Safety Executive (HSE) union Prospect has said it is important not to confuse petty bureaucracy with vital regulation designed to save lives. Prospect negotiator Mike Macdonald said: “There is a world of difference between petty bureaucracy enacted under the label of health and safety and HSE regulation designed to prevent deaths in the workplace,” adding “confusing the two continues to perpetuate a negative image of health and safety regulation and masks the bigger picture: as the figures for 2007/08 show 32,810 employees were exposed to fatal and major injuries at work.”
UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: “The Conservatives most not play politics with the safety of workers in their quest for votes. By trivialising the issue of safety the Conservatives are deflecting attention away from reality. Many workers, especially construction workers, are regularly placed in danger because there are simply too few inspections and too little enforcement activity on construction sites.”
Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) spokesperson Hilda Palmer was scathing. She said: “Cameron is completely bankrupt and his comments are absolute populist nonsense.” She added: “As far as FACK is concerned he obviously has no understanding at all of the issue. All the models the Tories are proposing come from America where they have been shown to have failed.”
Even the usually timorous HSE has murmured dissent at the Cameron proposals. Hazards asked HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger to clarify HSE’s position. His spokesperson said: “Mr Podger made clear that HSE's position had been to be opposed to enforcement holidays under what had previously been proposed as ‘earned autonomy’.”
But the Tories may have an ally in Europe. An action programme published by the European Commission in October 2009, as part of a ‘Better regulation’ campaign, proposes measures including exempting certain small businesses from undertaking risk assessments, reducing workplace inspections and urging member states to introduce only the minimum requirements of safety directives . The ETUC’s safety arm is critical, saying “on the pretext of reducing red tape” the deregulation obsessed European Commission is “undermining the rights of workers and consumers as well as the member states' possibility to enforce EU legislation” .
Whether or not the UK’s wounded watchdog, which has already tamely retreated from its core inspection and enforcement role, can be defended in the face of a Tory-EC deregulatory pincer movement, is something that remains to be seen.
Don’t stake your life on it.
1. Health and safety: Statistics 2008/09, National Statistics, 28 October 2009.
2. A job to die for? Hazards, number 92, October-December 2005.
3. Escaping scrutiny, Hazards, number 108, October-December 2009.
4. Steve Tombs and David Whyte. A deadly consensus: Worker safety and regulatory degradation under New Labour, British Journal of Criminology, volume 50, number 1, pages 46-65, January 2010 [abstract].
5. Official recognition for Workers Memorial Day in the UK, DWP news release, 28 January 2010.
8. David Cameron MP: We will reduce burden and impact of health and safety, speech to Policy Exchange, 1 December 2009 [pdf].
9. Ken Clarke: Britain will be a decent place to do business again, Conservative Party news release, 6 October 2009.
10. Regulation in the post-bureaucratic age: How to get rid of red tape and reform quangos. A Policy Paper on Better Regulation, Conservative Party green paper, October 2009 [pdf].
11. Mining fatalities fall to all-time low in 2009: 34 mining deaths in US is record-setting number, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) news release, 4 January 2010.
12. Action Programme for Reducing Administrative Burdens in the EU Sectoral Reduction Plans and 2009 Actions, Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, 22 October 2009 [pdf].
13. ETUI-HESA briefing, 23 October 2009.