TUC calls for action
Hazards issue 116, October-December 2011
There has never been a more worrying time for health and safety. For almost 40 years there has been a political consensus around the importance of regulations that protect all workers. That however has begun to fall apart. It is not just the stupid statements we get such as the prime minister blaming health and safety for damaging our “social fabric” and paving the way for the riots. What matters most is what they are actually doing and the effect it is having.
The coalition government has an agenda which is openly anti-regulation. In the past year and a half we have seen two inquiries set up by the government with the purpose of trying to reduce regulation that protects workers (Hazards 114). We have also seen the Red Tape Challenge which aimed to do the same. Despite the evidence that there is no “over-regulation” or “burden on business” the first moves to reduce protection have already started with proposed changes to workplace injury, disease and dangerous occurrences reporting regulations RIDDOR.
The government has already ordered a review of all existing regulation. It has also signalled its intention to see the UK only implement the minimum requirements of any European Union safety directives. At the same time the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), one of the most respected and effective of all public bodies, faces cuts of 35 per cent over the next three years.
This will lead to a decline in HSE activities, as is acknowledged in a recent official consultation which said, as a result of the cuts, “the expected 'lower level of enforcement' would mean a consequent decrease in health and safety standards throughout Great Britain, with ensuing costs to society” (Hazards 115).
Enforcement activity is in decline. The government has already instructed HSE not to proactively inspect most workplaces, and local authorities are being asked to do the same. These unannounced inspections have an important deterrent effect. But where employers know they can only be inspected if they report an injury, they simply will not report. The number of HSE inspectors will fall further. The number of inspections and prosecutions is already at an all-time low and is likely to fall even further.
Support for both employers and workers is being reduced. HSE has had to close its information line and all campaigns have been stopped on orders of the government - even massively successful campaigns such as the “Hidden Killers” one on asbestos. At the same time more emphasis is being put on “worker involvement” programmes which bypass or undermine the union model, despite no evidence that non-union models work, but overwhelming evidence that trade union safety representatives make a massive difference in the workforce (Hazards 110).
The gains which had been made on occupational disease and illness reduction are now likely to be overturned as a result of the cuts and the moratorium on campaigns and new guidance. Issues such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and stress, which are the cause of over 70 per cent of work-related sickness absence, were being addressed through tools such as the HSE management standards and the manual handling MAC toolkit, underpinned by inspection regimes. However the government’s statement on the future of health and safety, issued in March 2010, made no mention of occupational diseases.
CLEAR MESSAGE TUC says government health and safety cuts and deregulation will lead to more work-related deaths, injuries and ill-health.
The government is also taking action to prevent workers being able to claim compensation from their employer if they have a work-related injury or illness. They have introduced legislation which will remove existing no win–no fee arrangements and will instead put much of the cost of pursuing a claim on to the worker. The overall result is that more people will be made ill, injured, or killed as a result of their work.
Political interference, cuts and the overall deregulatory agenda mean HSE will lose much of its effectiveness and will suffer long term damage, while unions will find it much more difficult to operate.
This is not necessarily a deliberate plan by the coalition government to destroy the health and safety system. It is instead a by-product of a more general anti–worker, pro-business, anti-public sector agenda which is seen just as clearly in their approach to employment rights, public spending, taxation and pensions (Hazards 114). It also comes from a lack of understanding of the workplace and occupational disease. However, whatever the motive, the effect will be the same – unless we stop it.
The TUC wants to use 28 April 2012 as the day when workers up and down the country take action to protect our health and safety. This is International Workers Memorial Day and, although the TUC has traditionally called for activity to take place in the workplace, in 2012, 28 April falls on a Saturday and many workplaces will be closed. So we will instead be asking unions, trades councils, and others to make 28 April 2012 a “Day of activity to defend health and safety”.
Events can include vigils, marches, meetings, lobbies, or simple services with a minute’s silence, however the focus should be to get far more people involved in these local activities than in previous years, and with more publicity. We want to focus on local activities because more people can take part and local MPs - and the local press - are more likely to take notice.
To help build an effective day of action, there will be a meeting of activists held in every region of England as well as in Wales. The Scottish TUC will also be organising support for the day. In the fortnight before 28 April, unions will be asked to lobby local MPs. Most MPs surgeries fall on a Friday so there should be a lot on 27 April.
What do we want?
• No reduction in the legal protection for workers on health and safety. It is not a “burden on business” to protect the lives and health of workers.
• Those who create the risk must be held accountable. We need harsher penalties for those that break the law and a legal duty on those at the top of organisations who make decisions.
• No freedom from inspections and an increase in inspector numbers. Small businesses and the self-employed often create much higher risk. No business should be exempt from inspectors having the right to inspect them, but we also need enough inspectors to do the job.
• Recognition and support for the role that union safety representatives play. Unionised workplaces are safer. It is time the government publicly acknowledged that and did something to practically support health and safety representatives.
• More action to prevent occupational diseases. Tens of thousands of people are killed every year by diseases caused by their work. Five times as many days are taken off through sickness as a result of an illness caused by work than an injury. Yet far less is done to prevent occupational diseases.
What you can do!
• Find out if any activities are being organised in your town. Your local trades council or hazards group may be doing something.
• If there is nothing happening, talk to others in your workplace or union branch and organise something. A simple vigil or rally can be an effective way to get people involved.
• If you are in a workplace that is working on 28 April, hold a minute’s silence for those who have died as a result of failings in health and safety protection.
• Write to the local press about the effect the attacks on health and safety are having on your members.
• In the weeks leading up to the 28 April, make an appointment to see your MP at their surgery.
Unions organise for safe work
The unions Unite and UNISON are calling for union organisation to protect people at work.
UNISON says union members must ‘act now’ to protect workplace health and safety rights and standards from an unprecedented attack. A new short guide, ‘The threat to health and safety’, says the system protecting workers “is under greater threat now than at any other time.” The guide notes that with many UNISON workplaces now classified as ‘low risk’ and exempt from preventive, ‘proactive’ HSE inspections, workers are losing essential protection.
“Studies show that over 90 per cent of employers improve their health and safety policies either immediately before or after an inspection,” the union points out. It says UNISON reps should encourage members to keep on reporting and recording health and safety incidents. It adds they should raise concerns about the cuts to health and safety with their local MP and should tell their story through the local media, highlighting how the cuts are affecting people in particular workplaces.
In a foreword to a new Unite guide, general secretary Len McCluskey writes that organisation, solidarity and political awareness are the three pillars that “provide the rationale for our approach to health, safety and welfare: organising around day to day workplace issues and extending our claim for good work; campaigning for work security and a more just society and engaging internationally with workers and their organisations for the realisation of our shared values.”
He adds “we need not only to tackle the causes of accidents and ill-health in the workplace but work towards eliminating the causes, in both workplace and society, of poor health caused by social inequalities. The bad news is that, far from becoming more equal as a society, we are becoming more unequal, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer and, in consequence, suffering the effects of increasing health inequality.”
McCluskey concludes that addressing this injustice is an international challenge. “Working people the world over face many similar issues: from insecure employment to ill-health caused by work or lack of it. This is why Unite has made and will continue to forge links with unions and like-minded organisations throughout the world.”
TUC calls for action
It’s time to expose, discredit and act to derail the government’s dangerous safety plans, the union body says.
Unions organise for safe work The unions Unite and UNISON are calling for union organisation to protect people at work. more