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Hazards 119, July-September 2012
Give up. What can you do when a watchdog just sucks?
The Health and Safety Executive has no idea when it last inspected most workplaces, it rarely shows its face after a major injury and enforcement action is for the most part history. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says under a government mandated plan, there is much, much worse to come.

A watchdog that doesn’t sniff and won’t bark is of questionable use. Take the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). You could be scalped, lose a limb or be blinded at work but HSE, a law enforcer in a tailspin, would not care to look. The chances of HSE investigating why a body got to be mangled at work has dropped by 40 per cent in five years, figures obtained by Hazards reveal. Just 1-in-20 major injuries is now investigated.

As the combined fatal and major injury toll is on an upward trend, enforcement action is on the wane, the HSE statistics analysed by Hazards show. Only 1-in-170 of these fatal and major injuries resulted in prosecution activity in 2010/11, half the level of just five years ago. Only 1-in-65 results in any enforcement action at all, down by 30 per cent. The message is graphically clear. As enforcement goes down, injuries go up. To manage that in a recession, when economic activity falls and normally takes injuries with it, a phenomenon acknowledged by HSE, takes some effort.

DO SOMETHING  The TUC has called for a change of direction from the government after statistics on deaths at work showed the rate had remained the same for a second year, up over 17 per cent on the record low figure in 2009/10. Deaths normally dip in a recession as a result of reduced activity in the economy. more

And this is a government that has put in those hard yards. It has commissioned two health and safety enquiries, by Lord Young and Professor Löfstedt, both of which limited their scope to ‘reducing burdens on business’, not reducing the harm to the workforce. Even before listening to this purpose-skewed evidence, it slashed HSE’s budget and devised its own strategy to eliminate over 10,000 HSE preventive inspections each year and exempted most workplaces from any preventive scrutiny at all. And it identified workplace safety as a handy political whipping to appease its disaffected support in the True Blue Tory homelands.

For rogue employers, there has never been a better time to neglect safety at work.



WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WATCHDOG WON'T BITE
 

2006/07 

2007/08 

2008/09

2009/10

2010/11

Total HSE-enforced RIDDOR fatalities and major injuries

33,300
33,076
36,519
35,533
36,062

Percentage investigated by HSE [number]

8.53% [2,841]
8.33% [2,755]
5.82% [2,127]
5.76% [2,048]
5.11% [1,844]

Percentage resulting in HSE prosecution activity [number]

1.07%
[355]
1.12%
[371]
0.98%
[359]
0.76%
[271]
0.56%
[201]

Percentage resulting in any HSE enforcement activity

2.14%
2.47%
2.03%
1.82%
1.54%

 

HSE’s blind eye

HSE told Hazards it bins its inspection records after seven years, admitting it has little idea when it last visited most workplaces. In a 20 August 2012 response, the watchdog added that of the 900,000 workplaces it enforces, “data is not routinely collated” on how many firms have been erased from its files.

But with the slimline enforcer now only undertaking 20,000 inspections a year – an inspection frequency of once every 45 years on average – HSE will hold inspection records on just 15 per cent of the firms it enforces.

For some, the majority, the calculation will become much easier as there will be no new inspection records at all. Quarries, farms, docks, manufacturing industries including light engineering, plastics and rubber and electrical engineering, printing, offices, public transport and the whole public sector are among those to no longer receive preventive, unannounced HSE inspections. Under the strategy outlined in the government’s March 2011 ‘Good health and safety, good for everyone’ blueprint, it may take a fatality before HSE turns up.

As brutal cuts erode HSE’s ability to undertake basic oversight of working conditions, the safety agency increasingly doesn’t want to know about the workplace safety crimes taking place on its watch. It’s all part of a plan fashioned by the Conservatives and promoted with relish by the coalition government. It demanded a cut in inspections. HSE delivered. It called for cull of safety regulations. That too is underway.

Launching a June 2012 review of progress on its blueprint, the then safety minister and now justice secretary Chris Grayling told journalists: “It is an inescapable fact that there is a big burden out there that is unnecessary and has to go,” adding: “If we try to legislate out all risk, we will lose jobs to other places.”

This prompted a rebuke from the TUC: A spokesperson told Hazards: “Safety is not a ‘job-killer’. Those developed countries with the highest job creation are those with the strongest regulation, and the best enforcement.  These are countries that understand that health and safety is not a burden but a duty and that both workers and industry benefit from strong regulation and enforcement which help keep sickness absence rates down.”

A series of recent reports has shown not only that safety regulation and enforcement present no burden to business, even firms on the receiving end of enforcement action get bottom line savings from the improved practices that can result (Hazards 118).

 

Ideology not evidence

This is a government driven by a far-from-evidence-based desire to save business from non-existent burdens, and to lift basic workplace protections on life and limb. And there is worse to come.

Whole swathes of the self-employed – the government puts the number at over 1 million – are set to be exempted entirely from health and safety law and HSE scrutiny. A three month consultation launched on 2 August 2012 would limit coverage largely to ‘high-risk’ activities. Self-employed in manufacturing and service industries would fall generally into the you’re-on-your-own category, despite plenty of evidence this could a dangerous mistake.

Finalised HSE figures for 2010/11, the most recent available, confirm there were three deaths in manufacturing and 13 in services. These soon to be safety law exempt sectors contributed 16 of the 53 self-employed deaths for the year, or over 30 per cent of the total. Overall, these self-employed service and manufacturing sector deaths made up almost 1-in-10 of the year’s all industries total of 175 worker deaths. Other significant killers, including transportation, providing work for high numbers of the self-employed, would also be lifted outside the law.

The statistics already look bad for the government’s HSE-delivered reforms. The year’s workplace death figures, published on 5 July 2012, show the long-term downward drift in fatalities – the coalition inherited a record low work death rate - was reversed in the first year of their government.

Government minister Chris Grayling said the dramatic rise in work-related fatalities – up 16 per cent in 2010/11 and almost as high in 2011/12 – “pre-date our reforms.” But that’s not really true. They do not pre-date the dramatic Grayling-imposed cut in HSE’s budget. Nor does this year’s high fatality level pre-date the government’s March 2011 safety strategy, which introduced a drastic reduction in pro-active inspections by official enforcement agencies, including the blanket exemption of most workplaces from any preventive official scrutiny.

But there are ways to secure a healthy gloss on an unhealthy record. Changes to the reporting requirements on workplace injuries and diseases are certain to make some of the statistics at least look less incriminating.

In April 2012, the first round of reforms to the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) took effect. These mean employers now have to report injuries that keep workers off normal duties for over seven days, rather than over three days, which lops an estimated 30,000 injuries a year off the official work injury toll.

 

Fixing the statistics

But there’s a lot more HSE and the government don’t want to know. A second consultation document launched on 2 August 2012 outlined plans to dramatically curtail reporting of occupational diseases and all but fatal injuries. HSE proposals would exempt all the self-employed from submitting reports of workplace injuries or diseases.

Also for the axe is the requirement on any employer to report conditions including certain strain injuries, poisonings, vibration diseases, dermatitis and occupational cancers, dust diseases and asthma. Only the much rarer work-related biological diseases, including Q fever, rabies and Legionnaires’ disease, would remain reportable.

Neither would HSE want to know about dangerous occurrences outside of what it believes to be high risk sectors and activities. The need to report all fatal injuries to workers and those to members of the public as a result of a work activity would remain, as would the duty to report major injuries to workers.

David Charnock, HSE's consultation manager, said: “We are proposing to simplify the requirements by removing the duty to report in those areas where the information can be better obtained from other sources or where the data isn't particularly useful to the regulators. The proposals do not indicate any change in HSE's policy or strategic objectives, and we will continue to focus our investigations on those incidents that meet our published selection criteria.”

The grassroots Hazards Campaign responded that while the existing RIDDOR system was “full of holes and inadequate,” a more rational response would be “to improve RIDDOR so we obtain better data, not gut it so we obtain little useful data at all.”

Public consultation on proposals to simplify and clarify RIDDOR reporting requirements, CD243 and Public consultation on proposals to exempt some self-employed people from health and safety legislation, CD242. Both consultations end on 28 October 2012.

A progress report on implementation of health and safety reforms, DWP, June 2012



TUC alert as work death rate stays up

The TUC has called for a change of direction from the government after statistics on deaths at work showed the rate had remained the same for a second year, up over 17 per cent on the record low figure in 2009/10.

Deaths normally dip in a recession as a result of reduced activity in the economy. But Statistics on fatal injuries in the workplace 2011/12, released on 5 July 2012 by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), reveal 173 workers were killed in 2011/12, up from the 2010/11 provisional figure of 171, although two down on HSE’s finalised figure for last year of 175 fatalities.

The fatal injury rate remains at 0.6 per 100,000 workers. HSE figures for 2009/10 released in June 2010 showed the current government inherited a record low fatality figure of 147 worker deaths at a rate of 0.5 per 100,000.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber commented: “What is most worrying is that during previous economic downturns there has been a decrease in the rate of fatalities. The fact that this is not happening now suggests that deaths could rise sharply as Britain comes of out recession, unless urgent action is taken to improve workplace safety.”

The union leader added: “During the past two years we have seen a considerable fall in the number of routine safety inspections and at the same time both HSE and local authorities have had their funding cut. Yet still we see the government continuing to attack what they claim is an unnecessary health and safety culture, a view that is unlikely to be shared by the families of the 173 people who died last year as a result of their jobs.”

The Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) expressed concern at an ‘unacceptable increase’ in workplace fatalities in Scotland. New Health and Safety Executive (HSE) figures show the number of fatalities in Scotland in 2011/2012 was 20, up from 14 the previous year. The fatality rate of 0.8 deaths per 100,000 workers in the country compares to 0.6 per 100,000 in Britain overall.

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Give up

The Health and Safety Executive has no idea when it last inspected most workplaces, it rarely shows its face after a major injury and enforcement action is for the most part history. But Hazards says under a government mandated plan, there is much, much worse to come.

Contents

Introduction
Do something
Watchdog won't bite - table
HSE's blind eye
Fixing the statistics
Ideology not evidence
Work death rate stays up


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