but a cop out: Unions slam stress law snub
[Hazards 71, 1 August 2000]
and Safety Commission asked if we needed a stress law. We said a
resounding yes. But HSC bottled it - and millions of workers want
to know why. Kim Sunley, from general union GMB's HQ safety team,
take a mathematician to work out that when 78 per cent of people
say "yes" and 21 per cent say "no" - the overwhelming majority are
up for it.
So why then
when 78 per cent of respondents to the Health and Safety Commission's
1999 discussion document, Managing stress at work (Hazards 65),
called for a legally binding Approved Code of Practice (ACoP) or
regulations did HSC take a year to say NO?
When a similar
exercise took place in 1995, under the Tory government, HSC concluded
there were elements of guidance on stress that would be suitable
for an ACoP. Five years on, with more people suffering from work-related
stress, we've gone backwards.
HSC has written
to the 845 discussion document respondents to let them know stress
is a "serious problem" and that it is a "health and safety issue".
It adds that an ACoP is not necessary at present but that this will
be kept under constant review.
We can't have
one yet, it says, because there are no clear standards of management
practice for controlling work stressors against which inspectors
could gauge an employer's performance. But our European colleagues
have managed to find an answer to this problem and some have legislation
on stress. Some HSE inspectors - albeit few - have already managed
to take enforcement action on stress.
By autumn of
this year HSE has to prepare proposals on the development of suitable
standards. There will be no consideration of an ACoP until standards
are in place. We are talking about years rather than months, if
HSE also plans
to better equip enforcement officers to handle the issue of stress
in their routine work - enforcement isn't mentioned; start a project
on stress similar to the Back in Work initiative and, wait for it,
launch a publicity push to help educate employers and develop additional
What are the
real reasons behind this inaction? It is well known that the Cabinet
Office's Regulation Impact Unit does not want unnecessary, burdensome
regulations. It is reluctant to endorse new law unless it is absolutely
and Safety Executive is reluctant to enforce "soft" occupational
ago, Hazards revealed that HSE stress enforcement guidance
for its inspectors advised "it is important not to raise expectations
nor give the impression that enforcement action will be taken (attention
can be drawn to the difficulty of setting and enforcing specific
standards in this area)... there is no basis for setting standards"
(Hazards 53). HSE top brass was actively promoting the absence
of clear standards to justify inaction.
And the CBI,
despite stating that stress is a major occupational health issue,
has maintained all along its opposition to a stress ACoP (page
One thing is
for sure - delay will hurt everyone: families broken and lives and
livelihoods damaged; the cost to business from sickness absence,
high turnover of staff, and legal claims; it will cost the UK economy
as a whole, and leave a nation of people suffering from stress-related
problems including heart disease, strokes, depression and drug and
alcohol dependency (Hazards 69).
The HSE's planned
action will be no consolation to our members, particularly those
working in call centres, hospitals, and on production lines.
The GMB will
be stepping up action in pursuit of legislation on stress. GMB is
preparing its own review of the responses to the HSC's stress discussion
document. It will then be putting together its own ACoP action plan.
It is unacceptable
that one of the biggest causes of occupational ill-health in the
UK is relying on general duties as its legal base. This has to change.
WHAT THE UNIONS SAY
HSC, you're stressing
HSC says trade
union submissions made up about 7 per cent of all responses to the
stress discussion document. The unions were solidly in support of
an ACoP (see box below) - a view shared by a
further 71 per cent of all the respondents.
decision to put off introducing an ACoP shows once again that the
HSE has major problems dealing with the real health issues that
face working people in the 21st century. The argument that a stress
ACoP could not be enforced is nonsense. UNISON branches up and down
the country have forced inspectors to take action where employers
have ignored stress in risk assessments. We are going to force the
HSE to enforce the law regardless of whether they produce an ACoP."
head of safety, public sector union UNISON.
BAD NEWS "This
is bad news for the half a million workers who suffer illness from
work-related stress every year. The HSE's view that an ACoP would
be "unenforceable" at present is particularly alarming. It reveals
a crisis in confidence over the enforcement of occupational health
issues. Stress is one of the major occupational health problems
facing workers. Experience with other common hazards has shown that,
without a clear legal framework and effective enforcement activity,
the chances of getting employers to comply with their general duty
of care are low."
Doug Russell, national health and safety officer, shopworkers' union,
response of the HSC on stress is nothing short of disgraceful. They
have simply ignored the overwhelming arguments put forward by the
TUC representatives on the HSC. We do not accept that an ACoP on
stress cannot be enforced. The standards already exist and can,
and should, be enforced now. It is simply unthinkable that the HSC
and the HSE can suggest that there be no enforcement action on such
a serious health issue. The longer HSC and HSE sit on the fence,
the more workers will be condemned to intolerable, but preventable,
working conditions due to stress."
Bud Hudspith, national health and safety officer, print union GPMU.
LET DOWN "The
HSC has let down T&G members who know how stress impacts their whole
lives. There are instances of drivers working 13 days out of 14,
so it is not surprising that government, industry and trade union
estimates suggest £billions are lost through stress related absences
from work. The T&G will continue to campaign for an ACoP on stress...
HSC should act now not later on this key issue in the workplace."
Graham Stevenson, National Organiser for Transport, T&G.
ENFORCE THE LAW
"The TUC believes
that the high level of support from employers and workers for an
ACoP demonstrates the need for some clear standards against which
to manage the causes of work-related stress. The HSE needs to give
top priority to this work so that managers can be certain they are
doing all that they can to protect their workers, so that the appalling
levels of work stress can be reduced, and so that HSE and local
authorities can enforce the laws that should protect people at work."
Owen Tudor, TUC and a trade union representative of the Health and
WHAT WE TOLD THE
We want an ACoP
is what you told the Health and Safety Commission about stress.
more need to be done to tackle stress? Yes 98 per cent
No 1.6 per cent
think stress at work is a health, safety and welfare issue?
Yes 94.4 per cent
No 4 per cent
an Approved Code of Practice (AcoP) or stronger action be
Yes 78 per cent
No 21 per cent
to HSC discussion document Managing stress at work (DDE10),
HOW THE SAFETY
The Health and
Safety Commission's shock stress announcement came in June
Bill Callaghan said: "We are in no doubt that stress is an
important issue that needs serious attention from employers.
Although we do not consider that an ACoP is the right way
for us to deal with it at this particular moment, I do not
want any employer to be in any doubt that the HSC is determined
to see a clear reduction in the amount of illness caused or
made worse by work."
statement says that a stress ACoP "would be unenforceable"
because "HSC did not consider that there are currently any
clear, agreed standards of management practice against which
an employer's performance in managing a range of stressors,
such as the way work is structured, could be measured."
by Hazards, an HSC spokesperson said: "The views of
respondents have been taken into account. The fact is there
was no consensus among respondents on the question of enforceability.
HSC concluded that the development of management standards
would be a pre-requisite to enforcement." He added that HSE
will undertake an education programme aimed at employers.
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