Hazards issue 112, October-December 2010
It wants fewer accidents reported, small firms to do less on safety, funding constraints on compensation that will prevent occupational disease legal test cases and the cash-starved safety watchdog to take a further, catastrophic, funding hit.
FUNNY GUISE David Cameron and Lord Young make light of safety reforms that will inevitably result in more work-related deaths, injuries and ill-health. The approach has changed from a “catch-me-if-you-can” resource-pinched approach to workplace safety enforcement, to an “anything goes” because no-one is looking anyway strategy.
A 20 October 2010 email from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief executive Geoffrey Podger to all the agency’s staff, following the government’s spending review announcement earlier that day, noted: “The overall position is that we have been asked to make savings of at least 35 per cent in the government's contribution to our budget over the next four years.” This means HSE will lose £84 million off the annual government contribution to its budget by the time the full cuts package takes effect in 2015.
That’s not a fat-trimming exercise, that’s life-threatening surgery. It is inevitable preventive inspections will all but disappear, along with the lion’s share of HSE’s respected research and policy functions.
Podger is clear this unprecedented attack on HSE resources will leave it seriously damaged. “Unpacking this, it means we have to expect to make internally very significant economies in the national interest over the period,” the email says. It adds: “Ministers wish to recover markedly more of our costs from industry and to reduce the regulatory burden from the overall health and safety system on low-risk businesses.”
Government funds currently make up over 70 per cent of HSE’s annual income. The remaining £100m of HSE’s total budget of £341m comes from charges levied on high hazard businesses. The cuts mean the government’s annual contribution will drop to under £157m, less than half of HSE’s current spend.
The new strategy will mean charging more businesses, and giving far less cash and attention for the rest. To maintain the same level of funding by other means would mean having a government health and safety law enforcement agency with less than half of its funds coming from the government.
HURTING ALREADY The number of people harmed by their jobs increased by 100,000 last year, according to latest official figures, while the number of HSE prosecutions and convictions reached a record low. The statistics, published on 27 October 2010, prompted a warning from TUC that workplace injuries and diseases could increase as HSE struggles to cope with unprecedented budget cuts. [more]
It will mean a government enforcement agency robbed of the ability to make decisions based on rational priorities or need.
It’s a watchdog already running on empty. Workplaces are lucky to see an inspector once in a working lifetime (Hazards 110). In 2007/08, less than one in 15 major injuries at work was the subject of any official probe (Hazards 108). HSE prosecutions have more than halved since 2001. Fatalities and work-related ill-health have not.
Until the spending review announcement HSE could have been forgiven for thinking it has dodged the bullet. Lord Young’s review of health and safety, which he launched alongside prime minister David Cameron on 15 October 2010, avoided most of the more extreme measures both had mooted in the preceding months, including “earned autonomy” as a route to more self-regulation by firms and measures to “tame” the safety watchdog (Hazards 109).
HSE also survived the “bonfire of the quangos”, which will see the Environment Agency butchered and part-neutered and the Health Protection Agency sucked back under direct ministerial control.
But a fallen star in the Tory ranks with a grudge shattered any illusions HSE would emerge from the deficit reduction drive with only minor wounds. Right-wing Conservative MP Chris Grayling, tipped for a cabinet post before the 2010 election but subsequently relegated to the post of employment minister with responsibility for safety, “wanted to absorb HSE into the Department of Work and Pensions as a prelude to axing it,” a DWP insider told Hazards on condition of anonymity. “When he didn’t achieve that, he saw HSE was on the receiving end of a crippling funding cut.”
HUMAN COST Mum of two Laurie Swift, 27, lost her partner Alan Winters, crushed to death at work. The 28-year-old crane driver was killed just six weeks before the birth of Alan Jr.
Want to know about burdens? A Hazards poster
Hazards warned immediately after the election the gaffe-prone ideologue, dubbed the Tory “attack dog”, could not be trusted with health and safety (Hazards 111). Grayling’s vendetta against HSE could make all the most damaging ambitions of the Tory health and safety project inevitable. What Lord Young could not justify with evidence in his report – self-regulation, a not so much hands-off as a “look, no hands” alternative to policing workplace safety criminals – may be the only option left to a critically wounded HSE.
Spread too thin to any longer pretend it offers a credible threat of a visit and enforcement action, construction industry insiders say HSE’s top management has already prepared a plan to allow major firms to self-regulate, including big industry names with a charge sheet that includes blacklisting and serious criminal safety violations. They believe the most likely mechanism is an external auditing system, the approach that over two decades even the world’s most resource-rich multinationals could not make work in the Corporate Social Responsibility systems used to monitor their supply chains (Hazards 105).
HSE, though, denies there are plans to introduce any forms of self-regulation. “HSE has no contingency plans for this purpose,” a spokesperson told Hazards immediately after the budget cut was announced.
Lord Young’s safety blueprint
In the context of the spending review, Lord Young’s recommendations now appear to have been little more than an appetiser served five days ahead of meaty cuts.
Still, the TUC branded Lord Young’s report, ‘Common sense, common safety’, a “grave disappointment”. It calls for a relaxed system of accident reporting, measures to address a compensation culture the government itself accepts does not exist and changes to the risk assessment process that do already exist.
DANGEROUS LI(V)ES The government says it’s safety reforms are in the name of common sense. But they are not – the savage cuts and downgrading of safety protection are a political project driven by the business lobby and built around dangerous lies.
Hazards campaign poster and guide.
Under the proposals, all accepted by government, there would be a cost-cutting shake-up of the personal injury compensation system which could make costly test cases on new or contentious occupational diseases virtually impossible. Risk assessment requirements on 'low risk' industries would be revised - although the proposals for immediate action go no further than those provided already in Health and Safety Executive (HSE) risk assessment tools.
The recommendation that workplace accidents should only be reportable after more than seven days rather than the current three days plus “does not meet the minimum legal requirements accepted across the European Union”, commented TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson.
The risk assessment and accident reporting requirements incorporated in current UK law are all required to meet the minimum standards laid down the EU-wide framework directive. It’s a potential barrier anticipated by Lord Young, whose report calls for ministers to “go back to the European Commission and negotiate a reduction of burdens for low hazard environments.”
Still, even the Young recommendations will wound HSE, and another Tory right-wing MP, Christopher Chope has already placed six marker private member’s bills which could push through related amendments to the Health and Safety at Work Act and other measures. Before the election Chope was responsible for blocking a bill to protect the world’s poorest nations from debt sharks. Savaging HSE will be light relief by comparison.
In an indication of the political support for the deregulatory package, prime minister David Cameron sat alongside Lord Young at the launch of his report. Embracing Lord Young’s call for safety deregulation, the prime minister said he hoped the review would prove to be a “turning point”, with a new system being introduced to replace “unnecessary bureaucracy”.
Lord Young’s recommendations polarised opinions. Business loved them and unions hated them.
The deregulatory appetite of the business lobby was certainly whetted. Alexander Ehmann, head of regulatory affairs at the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: “The IoD is encouraged by Lord Young’s approach and calls on the government to look at deregulation in that other critical area of over-regulation – general employment law.” John Cridland, CBI deputy director-general, said: “Lord Young is right. We need a can-do, not a can-sue culture.”
DIFFERENT PRIORITIES Industry lobbyists couldn’t contain their glee at government plans to deregulate safety [more]. Unions say David Cameron’s new cut-price blueprint for health and safety will mean more work-related deaths, injuries and diseases [more].
“The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. Every year in the UK over 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of their work and at any one time over two million people are suffering ill-health because of their jobs.”
He added: “Yet instead of looking for ways of preventing people being killed and injured, the report uncritically accepts the myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety, and focuses on dealing with a compensation culture which the government accepts does not exist.
“Health and safety is not a throwback to a previous century, or an issue that only affects heavy industry. It is just as much an issue for offices and shops - workplaces that Lord Young dismisses as 'low risk', despite the evidence of high levels of work-related ill-health in these sectors.”
Mr Barber said the report “is a missed opportunity to improve the UK's workplace safety record and by failing to challenge the myths around health and safety it could actually make things much worse.”
At this stage, unaware of the funding bombshell to be dropped five days later, HSE was plainly relieved at Lord Young’s report, which left its inspection and enforcement function largely untouched. HSE chair Judith Hackitt commented: “Lord Young's report is an important milestone on the road to recovery for the reputation of real health and safety. HSE welcomes it and will be actively pursuing those recommendations within our remit.”
Then the axe fell
But Lord Young’s report has to be viewed in a different light when combined with unprecedented and savage cuts. HSE is now under direct instruction from parent department DWP to “design a streamlined health and safety system”.
TUC described the government package as “a triple whammy.” TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said The Young Review had been followed “by deep cuts to spending which will make it much easier for employers to avoid their obligations under the law to keep their staff safe and well at work.” He said “the HSE saw its budget cut by 35 per cent and that, combined with a 28 per cent cut in local government funding, will have a damaging impact on safety in workplaces up and down the UK.”
Mr Barber added: “More than a million workers are currently suffering from an illness or injury caused by their work, and last year over 30 million days were lost due to work-related sickness absence. This time off work cost employers £3.7 billion last year, yet much of this could have been prevented if they took better care of their staff.
“Cuts of this magnitude cannot be achieved through ‘efficiency savings’ but will mean job losses for large numbers of frontline staff. That will mean fewer visits to workplaces, less enforcement of safety law, and reduced health and safety guidance for employers. As a result, more people are likely to be made ill by their jobs, and killed or injured at work.”
Mike Clancy, deputy general secretary of Prospect, a union whose membership includes 1,650 HSE inspectors, scientists and other specialists, said: “Despite earlier misgivings, we greeted the government’s recent report into health and safety with some relief after Lord Young’s conclusions clearly recognised the strengths, sensitivity and professionalism of HSE’s approach and strategy. But our relief was short-lived.”
Clancy continued: “Lord Young’s report was supposed to tackle the madness of the health and safety culture, but surely the cuts to HSE’s budget are the clearest example of safety gone mad!”
HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger was left to console his shell-shocked staff. “I very much recognise the concerns that colleagues will have over what is bound to be a significant reduction in the size of the organisation but we will manage this process much better if we proceed in a measured way,” he said in his email address to all HSE employees.
“Finally, as I have said before, I do understand anxiety and concerns that colleagues will have about changes of this magnitude. I am very grateful to you for your continued hard work and dedication and will do all I can to help resolve the outstanding uncertainties and secure the best way forward.”
Sources and resources
Dangerous li(v)es, a Hazards pin-up-at-work guide and poster [pdf • jpeg] exploding the dangerous lies behind the health and safety deregulation drive. Hazards 112, pages 18-19, October-December 2010.
The case for health and safety: This TUC briefing puts the case for effective enforcement and regulation of health and safety, and refutes the government’s cost-cutting deregulation argument.
Fighting the cuts to health and safety: Health and safety funding is under threat from cuts proposed by the coalition government. This TUC briefing explains why this must not happen.
How to lobby your MP on health and safety: This TUC guide explains how to lobby your MP at his or her surgery on the cuts proposed by the government to the funding of health and safety work performed by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities.
Common sense, common safety: A report by Lord Young of Graffham to the Prime Minister following a Whitehall‑wide review of the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of the compensation culture, HM Government, October 2010 [pdf].
Workplace harm up, prosecutions down
The number of people harmed by their jobs increased by 100,000 last year, according to official figures, while the number of prosecutions and convictions reached a record low. The new statistics have prompted a warning from TUC that workplace injuries and diseases could increase as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) struggles to cope with unprecedented budget cuts.
HSE figures for April 2009 to March 2010 say 1.3 million current workers reported they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their work, up from 1.2 million in 2008/09. HSE said 555,000 of these cases were new illnesses occurring in-year, a 4,000 increase on the number of new illnesses recorded the previous year. A further 800,000 former workers claim they are still suffering from an illness caused or made worse by work.
HSE says there were 152 workers fatally injured in 2009/10 - down from 179 the previous year. It says this is the lowest level on record in Britain, with 0.5 deaths per 100,000 workers. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “It is of grave concern that the rate of work related ill-health has increased in the last year. While part of that may be due to the increased pressures associated with the recession, unions will be concerned that too little is being done to enforce health and safety regulations in this area. The further fall in prosecutions over the past year reinforces this.”
Both prosecutions, down to 1,026 cases, and convictions, at 735 in the year, were at a record low. The use of HSE enforcement notices, which do not result in an employer making an appearance in court or receiving any penalty or bad press for criminal breaches of safety law, increased from 8,079 in 2008/09 to 9,734 in 2009/10.
TUC’s Brendan Barber said a 35 per cent cut in the government contribution to HSE’s budget “is likely to make the situation worse with less guidance, fewer inspections and less enforcement across the board. This will mean higher illness rates, more days lost through sickness absence and - most importantly - more workers killed, injured or made ill as a result of their work.”
Would you trust this man with your safety?
A member of parliament referred to in the press as a Conservative Party ‘attack dog’ and who before becoming an MP worked for a union-busting PR firm that creates front organisations for polluting industries is the new health and safety minister.
Chris Grayling is now minister of state at the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP). He reports to DWP secretary Iain Duncan Smith. Mr Grayling, MP for Epsom and Ewell since 2001, was previously “a director in the Employee Communication practice at international communications firm Burson-Marsteller. He ended his time there as the firm's European Marketing Director,” according to his website.
Burson-Marsteller is one of the more high profile “union busting” firms and has acted on behalf of asbestos, tobacco, nuclear and chemical firms on regulatory and compensation issues. It is also regarded as a pioneer in the creation of ‘astroturf’ organisations, supposedly grassroots lobbying groups like the ‘Foundation for Clean Air Progress’, which was set up by Burson-Marsteller using funds provided by the petroleum, trucking and other polluting industries.
Source: Abuse of power, Hazards, Number 111, July/September 2010.
Business glee at the safety reforms
While the unions representing the workers on the rough end of Lord Young’s safety reforms have been dismayed by the new government-approved plan, the business lobby by contrast has been equally united in its praise for the measures to pare back safety protections.
Alexander Ehmann, head of regulatory affairs at the Institute of Directors (IoD), said: “Lord Young’s sensible recommendations are long overdue. Low risk businesses have been over-regulated on health and safety for too long.” He added the proposals “go a long way to lightening the load on offices and businesses across the country. The IoD is encouraged by Lord Young’s approach and calls on the government to look at deregulation in that other critical area of over-regulation – general employment law.”
John Cridland, Confederation of British Industry (CBI) deputy director-general, said: “Lord Young is right. We need a can-do, not a can-sue culture.” He added: “Lord Young’s report should put common sense back into the system, reduce bureaucracy, and improve our approach to managing risk.”
Steve Pointer, from the manufacturers’ organisation EEF, said: “Manufacturers will welcome this report. Practical action to protect employees from harm is important but, health and safety has become too focussed on completing paperwork and protecting the public from every possible risk.”
Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy and external affairs at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), said: “Lord Young's recommendations are both sensible and overdue. Businesses have long said that health and safety rules cannot be applied to hazardous environments and offices in the same way - and that there are too many burdens involved in allowing employees to work from home. These recommendations have the potential to reduce business costs and time-consuming bureaucratic burdens by managing risk in a far more sensible way. They will also give companies greater confidence to create jobs.”
He added: “Lord Young’s recommendations must be implemented swiftly and in full so that businesses, and the UK economy as a whole, can begin to benefit.”
And Tom Ironside, director of business and regulation with the British Retail Consortium (BRC), said the “review is a win for common sense. Not all work places are the same and this report recognises that the precautions needed in an industrial setting are different from those in a low-risk environment like a shop.”
While generally welcoming the government cuts package, the business lobby has so far remained silent on the impact of a 35 per cent cut in HSE’s budget. It will however make many of the demands of business – particularly a desire to receive less attention from HSE – a reality.
Union dismay at the safety reforms
Safety standards at work will be damaged as a result of HSE budget cuts and Lord Young’s recommendations on reform of the UK health and safety system, unions have warned.
TUC described the government safety cuts-and-reform package as “a triple whammy.” TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said The Young Review had been followed “by deep cuts to spending which will make it much easier for employers to avoid their obligations under the law to keep their staff safe and well at work.” He said “the HSE saw its budget cut by 35 per cent and that, combined with a 28 per cent cut in local government funding, will have a damaging impact on safety in workplaces up and down the UK.”
Mr Barber added: “Cuts of this magnitude cannot be achieved through ‘efficiency savings’ but will mean job losses for large numbers of frontline staff. That will mean fewer visits to workplaces, less enforcement of safety law, and reduced health and safety guidance for employers. As a result, more people are likely to be made ill by their jobs, and killed or injured at work.”
Commenting on Lord Young’s David Cameron-commissioned review of health and safety, Brendan Barber said: “The review's recommendations are predictable but a grave disappointment all the same. The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. Every year in the UK over 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of their work and at any one time over two million people are suffering ill-health because of their jobs.”
He added: “Yet instead of looking for ways of preventing people being killed and injured, the report uncritically accepts the myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety, and focuses on dealing with a compensation culture which the government accepts does not exist. Health and safety is not a throwback to a previous century, or an issue that only affects heavy industry. It is just as much an issue for offices and shops - workplaces that Lord Young dismisses as 'low risk', despite the evidence of high levels of work-related ill-health in these sectors.”
Mr Barber said the report “is a missed opportunity to improve the UK's workplace safety record and by failing to challenge the myths around health and safety it could actually make things much worse.”
Mike Clancy deputy general secretary of Prospect, a union whose membership includes 1,650 HSE inspectors, scientists and other specialists, said: “Despite earlier misgivings, we greeted the government’s recent report into health and safety with some relief after Lord Young’s conclusions clearly recognised the strengths, sensitivity and professionalism of HSE’s approach and strategy.
“But our relief was short-lived. It cannot be in the national interest to reduce investment in a body whose mission is to prevent death, injury and ill-health – saving lives and costs – just days after lauding it as pivotal to the restoration of the UK’s occupational health and safety reputation and practice.”
He added: “Lord Young’s report was supposed to tackle the madness of the health and safety culture, but surely the cuts to HSE’s budget are the clearest example of safety gone mad!”
But even before the cuts announcement, many unions were expressing alarm at the potential damage from Lord Young’s proposals alone.
RMT general secretary Bob Crow said “the moment Lord Young was given the brief to review Britain’s health and safety regime he began ridiculing it, criticising the mythical ‘compensation culture’ and wheeling out ‘health-and-safety-gone-mad’ stories.” He added: “RMT members have faced avoidable disasters including Piper Alpha, King’s Cross, Zeebrugge, Tebay and far too many rail crashes, as well as the risk of chronic ill-health and assault, and they are keenly aware of the need for robust health and safety protection.”
UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie, said accident under-reporting was rife, a problem that would made considerably worse by the report’s call for relaxed reporting standards. He added: “This report was a waste of time and money. Lord Young has failed to grasp why safety legislation is so vital in dangerous industries such as construction. If he had he would be demanding greater resources to protect workers and to tighten existing legislation.”
John McClean, GMB national health and safety officer, said: “We have arrived at the current regulatory regime along a road built on the blood, broken bones and deaths of workers and the public and attempts to undermine or trivialise this is not just a mistake it is also insulting.”
CWU national safety officer Dave Joyce said: “This deregulation assault is the start of a pernicious attack on law that in fact protects all of us. All workers and their families depend on health and safety to keep them safe and well. There's not a single proposal in the report that will reduce the high levels of workplace deaths, injuries and illness in the UK.”
Grahame Smith, STUC general secretary, said: “This is clearly a missed opportunity for our health and safety system to be reviewed to help trade unions and employers face the challenges facing workers in the future”.
Unite health and safety officer, Rob Miguel, said: “Lord Young appears to have no awareness of the problems of occupational disease, and seems to have ignored all the evidence received from experts and unions. Everyone has the right to work in a healthy, safe environment. Sadly, this report is a missed opportunity to improve safety at work but we certainly cannot let it usher in an era of even poorer standards.”
Hope Daley, UNISON’s head of health and safety, said: “Despite the review, Lord Young shows no awareness of the problems caused by occupational ill-health and no real understanding of the level of injury or ill-health in schools, classrooms or offices. Schools and offices have very high levels of stress-related illness, and many people suffer from arm, back and neck injuries. Between them these are responsible for around threequarters of work related sickness absence.” She added: “This report is really only interested in freeing business from bureaucratic burdens and disregards the value of workers’ health and safety.”
Families Against Corporate Killers (FACK) facilitator Hilda Palmer accused Lord Young of “aiming to divide workers by some arbitrary hazardous/non-hazardous line and so destroy the universality of health, safety and welfare law which protects all workers in all workplaces from injury and ill-health.”
She also rubbished Lord Young's figures on the numbers affected by work-related injuries and ill-health, pointing out that every year up to 1,500 workers are killed in work-related incidents and up to 50,000 die every year due to illnesses they had developed because of their work.
Workplace harm up, prosecutions down more
Would you trust this man with your safety? more
Business glee at the safety reforms more
Union dismay at the safety reforms more