Hazards issue 114, April-June 2011
The government calls it a strategy for health and safety, but it is really a giant stride towards lawlessness. It leaves the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) sidelined, starved of funds and staring extinction in the face.
As predicted by Hazards, HSE inspections have been slashed, most firms have been assured an inspector will never call and red tape – for me and you, the laws there to save our necks – is under the axe.
This is not because modern workplaces are safe and healthy. Even official figures, accepted to include only a minority of injuries, record the crunch of breaking bone in a workplace about 80 times every working day. Eyes or limbs are lost at a rate of two a day. Every hour of every day around the clock someone dies of occupational cancer, according to HSE’s self-confessed “conservative” estimate. The annual work cancer head count is increasing.
The changes introduced in the government’s new strategy will hit an enforcement agency that was already falling short on all counts. The prospects of a workplace seeing an HSE inspector had in 2010 already slipped to once in a working lifetime.
HSE prosecutions sank to a record low in 1009/10, with just 735 convictions secured. And figures obtained exclusively by Hazards show just 1 in 19 major injuries at work – a scalping, blinding, the loss of a limb or two – resulted in even a visit from HSE in 2009/10 [Table 1].
The percentage of fatal and major injuries investigated has fallen year on year for the last four years, down by a third since 2006/07 to just 1 in every 17 in 2009/10.
A BREATHTAKING RELUCTANCE TO PROSECUTE
When Hereford tool maker Philip Gundy won a court March 2011 payout for the disabling occupational lung disease that forced him to quit his job, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was handed on a plate the evidence to nab the villains responsible. But the safety watchdog chose to do nothing. [more]
If the situation is bad for reactive inspections, it’s worse when it comes to proactive inspections – the unannounced HSE knock at the door. Unsafe employers knew these inspections meant their safety shortcomings might be discovered and result in a criminal prosecution. Now, the great majority of firms know they are not even on HSE’s radar - so whatever their safety crime, there's little they’ll be caught.
Justice is already in short supply. In every year since 2006, only a minority of fatalities reported to HSE have been followed by a prosecution and over a third resulted in no enforcement action at all [Table 2]. Of the 70,000 major injuries reported to HSE in the two years from 2008/09 to 2009/10, less than 1 in every 50 had as of May 2011 resulted in any official enforcement action [Table 3].
All of this came before the cuts. In October 2010, HSE was told to institute cuts which will see its funding down by 35 per cent by 2015, an annual loss of £84m.
And the government’s new health and safety strategy, announced in March 2011, is directing the enforcement agency to hang up the handcuffs and to drift quietly from view. From October 2011, it will not even offer a telephone advice service anymore.
The “enforcement” link has even been removed from the front page of the HSE website, as HSE quietly sidesteps its legally required role to enforce the law. If you know where to look you can find it hidden three tiers down on the website – making a nonsense of HSE claims about “naming and shaming” dangerously negligent employers. HSE has also removed contact telephone numbers for local HSE offices from its website. If you need help in an emergency, you might have to send a fax or write a letter to get assistance.
Table 1: A serious lack of scrutiny
No mention of prevention
The reason the government is attacking safety is because it is what its friends in business want. And Chris Grayling, the employment minister fronting the assault and a frustrated wannabe Cabinet minister so far denied high office as a result of serial outbreaks of foot-in-mouth disease, is the man to deliver it.
RIGHT TOOL Safety campaigners doorstepped employment minister Chris Grayling outside the DWP’s London HQ on 28 April 2011. The Tory right-winger would prefer to listen to no-one but his friends in the business lobby.
[See: Employment minister confronted on safety cuts]
He has an axe to grind and right-wing credentials for high office he is desperate to showcase. Announcing the ‘Good health and safety, Good for everyone’ strategy on 21 March 2011, Grayling said Britain’s health and safety culture is “stifling business and holding back economic growth.”
Guaranteeing most businesses need never again fear a visit from a government safety inspector or the related “needless burden of bureaucracy”, the minister said the changes “will help us make Britain a more growth focused, entrepreneurial nation.”
Ten days later HSE chair Judith Hackitt, in an apparent admission the watchdog is resigned to its fate, announced its own new strategy, ‘HSE Delivery Plan for the period 1 April 2011 to 31 March 2012’, with a headline commitment to toe the Tory line. Facing a budget cut from £227.7m in 2009/10 to £198.7m by 2011/12, she notes: “Change is never easy, but standing still is not an option.” In her introduction to the plan, Hackitt says the document outlines the steps the safety watchdog will take to “enable innovation that brings economic growth while ensuring that risks are managed properly and proportionately”.
Declaring HSE is no longer all about safety is a dramatic and probably illegal departure from the enforcement agency’s mission: “The prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities.”
The plans are grouped under four main headings: Transforming our approach; Avoiding catastrophe; Clarifying ownership of risk and improving compliance; and Securing justice.
Under the new government strategy, “prevention” is dispensed with. Proactive HSE inspections will drop by a third, a reduction of 11,000 a year. There will be an end to these unannounced inspections across the whole of the public sector including health, social care, education, local government and emergency services; public transport including buses, road haulage and airports; post office and parcel couriers; manufacturing industries including light and electrical engineering, plastics, rubber, textiles, furniture, printing and paper.
Critics say there’s plenty of government departments and agencies promoting business innovation and growth, but only one intended to have protecting the life and limb of the workforce as its sole concern.
As HSE’s focus dissipates, so do its functions. HSE’s infoline, which in 2010 received over 237,000 enquiries at a cost of just £996,000 – a bargain compared to other government advice lines – will shut from October 2011. It is already been told it can no long spend money on campaigns, like the ‘shattered lives’ initiative to prevent falls, the biggest single cause of occupational accident fatalities, and the ‘hidden killer’ asbestos campaign, addressing the biggest single cause of occupational disease deaths.
Table 2: Interventions following fatalities reported to HSE
Table 3: Interventions following major injuries reported to HSE
HSE can no longer properly enforce or even advise. Government funding cuts have robbed it of the resources. Government strategy has robbed it of the role. Grayling gives this justification for the move: “By reducing unnecessary red tape we can encourage businesses to come and invest in the UK, creating jobs and opportunities when we need them most.”
It’s a straight lift from the business play book (Hazards 113). And unsurprisingly, the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), which has not felt constrained by a need for honesty when arguing its case against safety and employment regulations, was among those to welcome the new strategy.
BCC has plenty to crow about. The business lobby’s most ardent opponent of health and safety regulation has just been given a box seat in two separate government-commissioned investigations that could see more safety and sickness rights obliterated.
The first, a health and safety review to be completed by the autumn, will look at “easing unnecessary burdens on business.” BCC holds one of two employer seats on the six person advisory panel. The TUC has the only worker-side slot, with the three remaining seats occupied by MPs from the main parties.
Announcing the review, to be led by industry-favourite Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, Grayling stuck to his deregulatory script. “By rooting out needless bureaucracy we can encourage businesses to prosper and boost our economy,” he said.
BCC is gifted an even more influential role in a second review, this time into workplace sickness absence. BCC director general David Frost is the joint chair of a review the government says “will explore radical new ways on how the current system can be changed to help more people stay in work and reduce costs.”
BCC is making sure its skewed regulation-averse viewpoint is heard as both the safety and the sickness review consider their evidence. It doesn’t mind using dodgy sums and straightforward misrepresentation of its own survey findings to press its case.
The news release for a 24 May 2011 BCC report is headlined: ‘Half of businesses tied up in health and safety “yellow tape”.’ The report, ‘Health and Safety: a risky business?’, in fact found health and safety legislation is not a major concern to the majority of businesses. In fact, its survey found over half of 5,928 employers questioned did not find workplace safety regulations significantly burdensome and one in five didn’t find them burdensome at all.
Once more BCC opted to ignore the cost paid by the victims of slack health and safety standards – a human price that out-strips the business cost several times over. The figures, an extrapolation from its 2010 Burdens Barometer report, are again based only on what BCC estimates to be the cost of the regulations. There is no mention at all that significant benefits have been ignored by BCC’s number-crunchers and these benefits dwarf the costs.
One law highlighted in the new report is the Work at Height Regulations 2005, which BCC estimates have an annual cost of £45m. HSE has a different take on these figures. Provisional figures for 2009/10, show more than 3,000 workers suffered major injuries as the result of falls from height and 36 lost their lives.
HSE’s Regulatory Impact Assessment published ahead of the regulations noted: “The total cost of injuries and fatalities as a result of falls from height has been estimated at £458 million per year,” more than 10 times the BCC cost estimate. It added its “Height Priority Programme is aiming for a 10 per cent reductions in falls from height over ten years from 1999 to 2010. If the introduction of the proposed regulations brings about a 10 per cent reduction in the cost of injuries, the benefit would be approximately £46 million per year.”
Businesses operating safely wouldn’t face significant costs, because they’d already be meeting the requirements, HSE added.
Fatalities and major injuries caused by workplace falls have dropped dramatically over the last decade. Any costs are self-evidently and dramatically outweighed by the savings. But this isn’t just about money. This is a regulatory success story that has saved lives and prevented suffering, something that makes BCC’s complaints about the cash burden of the regulations seem cynical at best.
The cost equation for occupational diseases presents an even more compelling case for prevention through strong regulation backed up by vigorous enforcement. In Britain, occupational cancers alone cost society several billion pounds every year. Add in work-related heart and respiratory disease, mental illness and injuries and BCC’s costs complaints seem trivial bordering on ludicrous.
But for a government intent on courting the business lobby, it is not just safety and sickness in the cross hairs. The government has embarked on a bout of regulatory cleansing which will also see many denied compensation if injured at work, denied justice if treated unfairly or fired and denied welfare if just sick enough no-one will hire them [See: Body blow, Hazards 114].
And the whole approach is based on a lie. Regulation and enforcement do not hamper economic growth, they enhance it (Hazards 113).
Of course, it you pass the cost of broken lives and stolen health onto families, workers and the public purse by handing the business advantage to the more irresponsible, corner-cutting end of industry, the government is transferring the cost of broken lives and stolen health onto families, workers and the public purse.
A breathtaking reluctance to prosecute
When Hereford tool maker Philip Gundy won a March 2011 court payout for the disabling occupational lung disease that forced him to quit his job, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was handed on a plate the evidence to nab the villains responsible.
Iain Shoolbred of Irwin Mitchell Solicitors, who represented the 59-year-old in the civil compensation case, told Hazards: “The Judge ruled not only that Mr Gundy had occupational asthma, but also that his illness was caused by his employer’s failure to operate a safe system of maintaining and monitoring the coolant used in the grinding machines he operated.” The firm, Timothy Ormerod Ltd, admitted as much in court.
Mr Gundy (pictured at work in the 1980s) has since 2005 suffered severe shortness of breath and painful coughing, the result of this criminal negligence. The asthma led to the development of hyperventilation syndrome. “The problems have really taken their toll and while the impact does vary from day to day, at worst I struggle to walk 100 yards before feeling breathless,” he said.
HSE knew about the case. It was reported to the watchdog by Mr Gundy’s hospital consultant. And HSE knew the firm had committed a series of crimes that caused a man to suffer a serious, chronic illness that cost him his job. It had issued prohibition notices on four dangerous machines and an improvement notice for a further criminal failure to control metalworking fluid, the substance responsible for Mr Gundy’s asthma.
But despite a judge in the civil case drawing attention to criminal breaches of the law, and HSE’s own investigation confirming a series of criminal offences, HSE refused to act. In April 2011, an HSE spokesperson told Hazards: “HSE has reviewed the investigation papers against its enforcement policies in relation to considering whether to pursue a prosecution at this time and it has been decided not to pursue this matter any further.”
Mr Gundy’s lawyer Iain Shoolbred commented: “It has undoubtedly been a distressing time for him, as he had to attend a hard-fought trial which lasted four days throughout which his employer robustly denied responsibility for his suffering. Shockingly they repeatedly claimed that he did not even have asthma, let alone occupational asthma.”
HSE knew the firm was to blame. But the cut-price, cutback watchdog decided to let another safety criminal go free.
Employment minister confronted on safety cuts
Unions and safety campaigners took the fight for safer work to the government’s doorstep. As part of Workers’ Memorial Day activities on 28 April 2011, union reps and members of the Hazards Campaign and the Construction Safety Campaign protested outside the London HQ of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the government ministry pushing through the dramatic erosion of safety enforcement in the UK.
Simon Hester, a union rep with Prospect’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) branch, confronted employment minister Chris Grayling on the DWP steps. He questioned the minister’s decision to cut 35 per cent from HSE’s budget, a move he said meant inspections on major construction sites would only now take place after a death or serious injury had occurred. The union rep added that workplaces in the public, health, education, local government, transport, quarries and agriculture sectors would also no longer be inspected unannounced. Significant elements of the manufacturing industry will also go without inspections in future, he revealed.
“The role of the HSE is being undermined,” the Prospect rep said. “We won't be the last line of defence anymore, we will be coming in to pick up the pieces.” The visibly shaken minister responded: “My door is always open.”
More than one hundred events involving thousands of workers took place around Britain to commemorate Workers’ Memorial Day. Unite general secretary Len McCluskey commented: “As the coalition's cuts to people's living standards become a grim reality and the wave of public sector job losses ebb into homes throughout Britain, never has it been more important to celebrate International Workers' Memorial Day and the achievements hard won over the last century for working people.”
UNISON’s general secretary, Dave Prentis said: “The government’s cuts will cost lives. Too many workers are still suffering because of workplace injuries, yet the government is adding to the risks by piling pressure on staff and enforcement agencies.” Grahame Smith, STUC general secretary, said the cuts would “lead to more accidents, greater risk of exposure to dangerous substances such as asbestos and more incidences of occupational ill-health.”
THE SCREW YOU BLUEPRINT
AT A GLANCE
Your workplace safety safety net is already threadbare, and for most – even those suffering crippling injuries - it is about to disappear entirely.
INVESTIGATIONS There has been a dramatic decline in the number of major injuries investigated by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Almost all, including blindings and amputations, now go uninvestigated. Last year, just 5 per cent resulted in an HSE probe.
PROSECUTIONS HSE is under orders to withdraw further from enforcement activity. Even now, only a minority of workplace fatalities and less than 1 per cent of major injuries result in a prosecution. The “enforcement” link has been removed from the front page of the HSE website.
INSPECTIONS The majority of workplaces have been told they need never fear an unannounced inspection from HSE. Last year, before the dramatic cut in workplace inspections announced by the government in March 2011, firms could expect an HSE inspection once every 38.4 years, or once in a working lifetime.
CAMPAIGNS There won’t be any. Initiatives HSE considered essential to curtail runaway deaths in agriculture and caused by asbestos and falls, for example, have been shelved.
ADVICE That’s a no-no too. HSE’s Infoline closes in October 2011 and won’t be replaced. And even the reporting all but fatalities and the most serious injuries by phone has been stopped, as the contract for the telephone Incident Contact Centre has been terminated. And HSE has removed the telephone numbers of all its offices from the HSE website – in an emergency you may have to fax for assistance.
SICK ATTACK Reforms to the benefit system mean even those made extremely ill or seriously injured at work are having their benefits slashed and are being instructed to compete for jobs that don’t exist. Compensation too is under attack, with government proposals set to leave the majority worse off where a claim succeeds or unable to afford a claim.