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magazine, issue 99
deaths, enforcement scandal,
The resource-starved Health and Safety Executive can no longer investigate some of the most serious workplace injuries. It doesn't know how many people are suffering from cancer and other workplace diseases. Fatalities are rising. HSE needs help. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says it doesn't seem to see anything is wrong.
Workplace safety has taken a turn for the worse. Statistics for 2006/07, released on 26 July 2007, show fatalities are up by 11 per cent on the previous year, a five year high (see box). But while the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is refusing to acknowledge it faces an enforcement crisis, injured workers know otherwise.
Keith Waring, an employee of Rotherham firm Steal-Master UK Ltd, certainly knows. He fell 13 feet from a ladder, when cables he was pulling through a wall came lose and he over-balanced. The fractures to his legs were severe. His left leg was amputated below the knee, and doctors are still fighting to save his right leg. The company has accepted liability. The only problem has been HSE.
David Urpeth, his solicitor at the law firm Irwin Mitchell, said: “HSE was informed of the accident, but it was never investigated. If you can lose limbs at work in an incident for which the employer admits liability and you still can’t get an inspector out, there has to be something going seriously wrong.”
Keith feels let down. He told Hazards: “In cases as severe as mine, I am troubled HSE doesn’t always investigate. This cannot be right. I am now more or less a burden on the health service and if I hadn't had the accident that wouldn't have happened. Of course I'm no longer contributing to society because I'm no longer working.”
Keith’s case is one of hundreds of serious incidents that escape HSE scrutiny each year. Neil Ringrose works for a scaffolding company, delivering equipment to sites, where he sometimes helps the scaffolders who'll erect it. In 2006 he was handing scaffolding tubes to workmates above him when a sway brace - an eight foot long metal tube weighing about 25 pounds - came loose and plunged down. Neil says it was “like a heavy metal spear” flying straight into his upturned face. The resulting injury required him to be hospitalised, to undergo a series of reconstructive facial operations, and to be off work for a total of 17 weeks.
He told Hazards: “I suffered serious facial injuries and have had to endure several operations. I have also suffered with post traumatic stress disorder. This is not a sticking plaster job, it is a really serious incident that should have triggered an immediate HSE investigation.” The official accident report gave no indication of the severity of the accident, nor of Neil’s injuries. But HSE’s dwindling band of field inspectors are increasingly reliant on “paper policing” – just checking the documentation – to get any indication of whether a serious incident has occurred.
Neil, like Keith, was represented by David Urpeth of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors. Mr Urpeth said these weren’t isolated cases. “I had a case recently that had been played down significantly by the employer and when I got the letter back from the Health and Safety Executive saying, ‘look we didn't investigate, we didn't think it was serious enough, we took the view he wouldn't have been off for three days’. I wrote back saying you know this is a guy that's suffered a head injury, he's very seriously injured, he's been off at least seven weeks, you ought to have a look at this. And they've reinvestigated that particular one.”
He added that the situation is worsening. “It's increasing almost logarithmically, we're now into the hundreds and this is very, very concerning.”
HSE inspections have dropped off dramatically in recent years (Hazards 95), and fewer than 1-in-5 major injuries now result in an investigation.
But HSE’s operational procedures state clearly that certain priority categories of incident – including “amputation of hand/arm or foot/leg” and falls from height – should result in an investigation. Others categories covered by the HSE investigation “selection criteria” include multiple fractures, head injuries involving loss of consciousness, burns and scalds over more than 10 per cent of the body, permanent blinding in one or more eyes, scalpings and asphyxiations.
Internal HSE statistics obtained by Hazards show that hundreds of these “major” major injuries each year are not resulting in an investigation – and the numbers not investigated as result of “inadequate resources”. In 2004/05, HSE inspectors gave this reason for failing to investigate a qualifying major injury on 188 occasions. By 2005/06 this happened on 255 occasions. And in 2006/07, HSE inspectors said inadequate resources was the reason they failed to investigate some of the most serious workplace injuries on 307 occasions.
These are not all the “major” major injuries that went uninvestigated. In 2004/05, in addition to the 188 not investigated because of lack of resources, 245 were not investigated for other reasons – 433 in total. Figures on this “others” category were not collected in 2005/06 and 2006/07, making it impossible to assess any more the full extent of HSE’s failure to investigate some of the worst injuries in Britain’s workplaces.
The growing failure to investigate comes despite HSE’s selection criteria on the investigation of major injuries being restricted in 2004 in response to resource constraints. The new rules exclude investigation of injuries such as the loss of fingertips.
The HSE resource crisis is now so acute it prompted a July 2007 decision by the HSE board to relocate its entire policy division to Bootle. Prospect and PCS members protested the decision outside HSE’s London HQ on 17 July. Prospect negotiations officer Mike MacDonald said the proposals were “poorly thought out”, adding: “Many experienced staff faced with the option of uprooting families and leaving their homes will view redundancy as a preferable option, draining HSE of its body of expertise.”
Neil Hope-Collins, Prospect’s HSE branch chair, said: “The Executive is pushing forward with a radical relocation before it has fully assessed the impact of government funding cutbacks which have already led to the loss of up to 350 jobs or the further drive to find 15 per cent cost savings over the next three years. Prospect is calling for HSE to rethink the proposals and discuss other means to make the HSE more efficient.” HSE has already admitted the anticipated savings for shifting staff to its PFI offices in Bootle – described by insiders as “a half full, white collar elephant” – will not reap the hoped for savings. The unions say if HSE is to enforce effectively, it needs to retain skilled staff and increase the available resources.
Commenting on the increasing failure of HSE inspectors to investigate serious injuries because of inadequate resources, Prospect’s Mike Macdonald said: “HSE’s policy is often a matter of intense debate but this is simple; unless HSE is properly funded it cannot function. It cannot meet its public expectations to advise, inspect and enforce workplace health and safety so that Britain’s 28 million workers have confidence they will not be injured or killed at work.”
HSE has already lost over 250 jobs since April 2006 and faces a further 100 job losses in the remaining half of the 2007 financial year. It then faces a 15 per cent budget cut by 2011 to meet Treasury efficiency targets. Since 2002, HSE has lost over 1,000 posts as a result of government spending cuts; the organisation now employs fewer than 3,250 staff. “Better funding for the HSE would be good for workers concerned about their safety, employers seeking advice and the taxpayer who meets the costs of higher benefit and insurance because of rising accident rates,” said Prospect’s Mike Macdonald.
Steve Kay, Prospect HSE branch vice-chair, said: “With adequate funding in the past, we succeeded in making substantial progress. But now the Executive is being starved of the resources needed to improve safety at work. This is not a question of strategy, it is a simple matter of funding.”
Unions elsewhere, meanwhile, have been treated with similar disdain. In June 2007, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) followed HSE’s recommendation and said there would be no new rights for safety reps. The move – predicted exclusively by Hazards magazine (Hazards 98) – came after the CBI “strongly opposed” the new rights, safety minister Lord McKenzie said in an 8 June 2007 letter to NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear.
Commenting on the findings of the worker involvement consultation, which overwhelmingly supported new rights for safety reps, he said: “HSC cannot make changes without broad stakeholder agreement to them and the lack of consensus between the social partners on this issue means that no progress can be made on any regulatory changes.”
A TUC spokesperson commented: “We fail to understand how this decision could be made in the face of overwhelming support for change expressed by respondents to the recent consultation exercise, but whatever the decision, this issue will not go away.” She added: “We will continue to raise it again and again, not only with the HSC but also with ministers and politicians. We know that improved rights for safety reps not only make sense, but are desperately needed.”
In fact, the proposals supported by most respondents to the consultation were extremely modest, limited to a duty to respond to and consult safety reps in limited circumstances. The rationale for rejecting the new rights was not that they wouldn’t save lives or reduce sickness absence – government reports acknowledge safety reps result in a massive reduction in workplace injuries, sick leave and costs – but that they didn’t prove the additional rights would out-weigh estimated costs of new regulations, put at £2.9m to £4.2m. However, even by government estimates it would only take a marginal improvement in overall safety rep effectiveness to offset any costs (Hazards 98). At 2004 prices, the government estimates the cost of just one occupational cancer death at £2.46m. If safety reps with additional rights succeeded in preventing any additional work-related ill-health it would patently more than defray any costs.
There is new evidence that would support a case for far more extensive new safety rep rights, including roving safety reps. A January 2007 government paper put the cost saving already delivered by safety reps, at 2004 prices, at between £181m and £587m. This was based largely on accident reduction evidence from a landmark 1995 paper by Reilly and others which concluded workplaces with full union recognition and a joint management-union safety committee had a serious accident rate less than half that of firms with no union recognition and no joint committee (Hazards 78).
But a new analysis by Cardiff University researchers has concluded this under-estimated the true impact of unions on safety.
The paper in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Industrial Relations said its improved analyses “led to results which are actually, if anything, a stronger confirmation of the mediated effects of trade union on injuries at work than those found by Reilly et al.” It adds: “In so far as the evidence we have found from manufacturing about the inferiority of unilateral management of safety and non-trade union committees can be generalised, it underlines the need for innovation in health and safety arrangements.
“In some European countries such as Sweden, Norway and Italy, an appreciation of the need for such innovation has led to the introduction of regulatory measures for regional or territorial safety representatives – a mechanism whereby the considerable resources of trade union in the health and safety field can be extended to vulnerable workplaces.”
The paper concludes: “The results of the present study demonstrate that participative arrangements for health and safety are effective when they have proper support. But in doing so they lend weight to the argument that current regulatory provisions need to be consolidated and extended in ways that are relevant to the real world of work in the 21st century.”
The changes need not be contentious. Survey findings published in April 2007 by the Swedish trade union centre LO and Statistics Sweden found 85 per cent of employers appreciate the work of regional safety delegates. LO vice president, Ulla Lindqvist, commenting on the survey of 730 regional safety delegates, said: “The regional safety delegates make the employers and employees pay attention to the importance of working environment measures. The working environment is developed by the systematic co-operation between employers and regional safety delegates.
“The regional safety delegates' achievements are of advantage to society by their making the working environment safer. More people can work and contribute to our joint welfare and production. It is logical that the government should allot resources to the training of regional safety delegates.”
HSE and ministers say they want cooperation on safety issues. The should follow the Swedish example, and give union reps better rights do this more effectively in more places – places it is increasingly unlikely will ever see an HSE inspector.
Theo Nichols, David Walters, Ali C Tasiran. Trade unions, institutional mediation and industrial safety: Evidence from the UK, Journal of Industrial Relations, volume 49, Number 2, pages 211-225, 2007 [abstract].
The safety delegates' work and experiences 2006, LO Sweden, Statistics Sweden, April 2007. LO Sweden news release
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