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Hazards 105, January-March 2009
Recession, reforms and a reeling regulator leave workers at risk
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Welfare reforms are demanding the sick and unemployed get into work, but the jobs don’t exist. And a new workplace safety strategy promises improvements, but the funds to deliver aren’t there. As the recession bites, Hazards editor Rory O’Neill argues that workers could get less of the credit and feel more of the crunch.

Credit crunch
Hazards 106, April - June 2009



It’s all change at work. There’s a welfare plan, there’s a health at work plan and there’s a health and safety at work plan. All three plans claim to improve the lot of the working man and woman.

The welfare plan will help the sick and disabled back to work [1]. The health at work plan will keep workers in tip top condition so they can remain in work and working [2]. And the health and safety at work plan includes welcome references to “justice” and “worker involvement” as part of a Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “mission” to achieve “the prevention of death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work activities” [3]. But behind the pretty words are some pretty ugly truths.

There’s going to be more and more harsh benefits sanctions in a work-at-any-price drive to reduce the benefits and sickness absence bill. At the same time, those employers making workers sick have never been subject to less enforcement and will face fewer sanctions, because the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has never had fewer inspectors on the beat, more workplaces to inspect or more light-touch regulation limitations on its enforcement role [4]. It’s an unhealthy combination for both those in and out of work.

The welfare reform plan

The government knows its talk of no-one getting a free ride from the welfare system plays well with voters and it is desperate to cut the benefits bill. So the January 2009 Welfare Reform Bill includes a work-for-your-benefits clause [1].There were already concerns about the government’s strong language on benefits. TUC general secretary warned in December 2008 that the government needed “to stop talking as if every benefit claimant is a potential scrounger.” He added “the introduction of workfare will unfairly stigmatise unemployed people without having any impact on their chances of finding jobs.”

Aside from the fact the welfare plan was hatched at a time of record employment and low unemployment – there was not a lot of shirking out there - it’s timing stinks. What has been described as an economic downturn - but is really the economic upshot of allowing bankers and industry to play entirely by their own deregulated and barely policed rules – means millions will find themselves thrown onto benefits, without much prospect of a job remunerated by either wages or benefits.

This welfare plan pairs escalating job insecurity with benefits insecurity, and paints the victims as the villains. Job insecurity it a workplace hazards in its own right, linked to higher rates of chronic disease, including heart disease, and injuries at work. Any new jobs are unlikely to be good jobs. A September 2008 report from The Work Foundation called for a new approach, based not on haranguing the sick, but on the creation of good jobs [5]. And a January 2009 report from the Institute for Public Policy Research warned that the government was failing to create high quality jobs, a failing that could result in well-qualified workers joining the competition for poor quality jobs [6].

The health at work plan

The objectives of the government’s ‘Improving health at work: Changing lives’ plan [2], launched in November 2008, have far more to do with work than health. The themes - keeping the sick in work and getting the sick out-of-work into work – mark it as an operational cousin of the welfare reform plan. Elements of the improving health  include ‘fit notes’ to spell out what a worker can do, as oppose to sick notes that concentrate on what they can’t.

Under measures spelled out by the government in response to Dame Carol Black’s ‘Working for a healthier tomorrow’ blueprint [7], there’s also plans for a pilot scheme for those newly off sick to be allocated a case manager to tailor a back-to-work programme for them with the help of physios, counsellors and other health professionals. Health experts could also be present at job centres in the future to assess the particular needs and problems of job applicants. There will also be a new National Centre for Working-Age Health and Wellbeing, a pilot occupational health helpline for smaller businesses, a fund to encourage local initiatives that improve workplace health and wellbeing and a review of the health of the NHS workforce.

Added to concerns about the strategy being too closely linked to the government’s welfare agenda, however, are practical difficulties about how the “improving health at work” drive will operate. Employers frequently show little interest in employing less than healthy workers – the much higher rates of unemployment in workers with disabilities and with mental illness is clear evidence of that, as are the tens of thousands relieved of their jobs each year because of sickness or work-related ill-health or injury.

Fit notes – credited to Dame Carol but in fact an idea first proposed as ‘well notes’ by the government, then welcomed as a great idea by ministers when reworded by the government’s tame dame – are an idea so self-evidently unworkable they should have been dropped at the outset. They require a doctor to tell a sick or injured worker’s employer how to make good use of a below par staff member. General practitioners have little knowledge of jobs other than doctoring so are singularly ill-placed to advise anyone on occupational health and safety issues. And the small minority that may have the knowledge, don’t have the time of first hand experience of the worker’s job or alternative work options.  

Do you want an apple from the boss?

Palle a day
A council is giving its staff two free pieces of fruit a day to see if it makes the workforce fitter. Durham County Council has embarked on the scheme as part of the EU-funded ISAFRUIT project. Workers participating in the ‘Fruit at Work’ scheme will be monitored by researchers at Newcastle University and the Technical University of Denmark

The project is the first of its kind in the UK and to launch the trial 500 volunteers are being recruited from Durham County Council. Half the volunteers will receive two free pieces of fruit a day while the control group will initially continue with their normal diet. The researchers will monitor weight, blood pressure and waist size, sickness absence, staff morale and overall productivity

A Hazards straw poll of union health specialists suggested they were less than impressed with the project. One said “why not go the whole hog and make it five a day? Or just give the workers the money so they can make adult dietary decisions themselves?” Others suggested the short-term study would not be able to make meaningful conclusions, as it would be impossible to separate out the impact of a minor dietary change from other health influences

Newcastle University news releaseISAFRUIT project

The TUC has said the government’s proposals on work and health should have been more ambitious, with a greater focus on prevention and on the needs of the worker. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “More must be done to stop employees from becoming ill or injured in the first place. This report shows that ministers recognise the importance of enforcement in improving health and safety in workplaces. But without additional resources to the Health and Safety Executive and local councils, there is unlikely to be any increase in the number of safety inspections.

“In addition, while the response strongly emphasises the role of small businesses in reducing ill-health, there is far less about empowering and supporting workers and those on benefits themselves.”

Dame Carol’s plan, embraced by the government, has encouraged lifestyle focused initiatives by employers, but does nothing to address the work-related problems that dominate workers’ waking lives. Without tackling employers bad habits, the Dame is tinkering at the margins. Ideas that would work - like improved employment protection for sick and injured workers and more rights for union safety reps to identify and address workplace health problems  - are not given a look in.

The workplace health plan

In February 2004, HSE launched a new strategy [8]. The watchdog promising “sensible health and safety controls sensibly applied” as part of a “vision” to “gain recognition of health and safety as a cornerstone of a civilised society.” As well as being an embarrassment of vacuous management-speak, the strategy – described by Hazards at the time as “a slash-and-burn policy that could mortally wound an already reeling safety agency” - was a disastrous flop.

‘The health and safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution’, HSE’s January 2009 strategy rethink [3], notes that: “The process of health and safety improvement began in 1974 and continued unabated until around 2003. Since then it has stalled.”

The reasons are clear enough. Since 2004, all forms of enforcement – prosecutions, convictions and notices – plummeted, mirroring HSE’s year-on-year loss of frontline enforcement staff [4]. HSE’s insistence that it wanted to persuade, not persecute, errant employers was a policy contrived to fit better a threadbare agency. It was never a plan to make workplaces safer, something borne out by the statistics.

The new strategy proposals are a great improvement, and the deregulatory, soft-touch tone of its predecessor has all but gone. It sets a better context for making work safer and healthier. Key goals are to reduce work-related ill-health and injuries, to secure justice, encourage strong leadership, built competence, promote worker involvement, avoid catastrophes and take account of wider issues that impact on health and safety and its delivery.

There’s not much to argue about there. But HSE is still hobbled by too few bodies and too little cash. Last year it had over 16 per cent fewer frontline inspectors than in 2004. And HSE, like other regulators, has to take a softer line whatever its new strategy says. The April 2008 Regulators’ Compliance Code means HSE, like other regulators, has to take a softer line whatever its new strategy says (Hazards 102).

Tell HSE what to do

The Hazards Campaign, a coalition of union and health and safety campaign groups, has spelled out key issues to be raised in response to HSE’s strategy consultation.

Real burden Stop worrying about the health and safety “burden” on business; HSE must recognise the real burden is borne by those made ill, injured and killed and their families.

True toll When HSE talks about the harm caused by work, it should acknowledge the real toll – the tens of thousands killed by work cancers and occupational diseases every year, the hundreds dying on the roads while working and the thousands of other deaths not including in HSE fatality statistics.

Credible threat Existing enforcement practice is not good enough. There must be more HSE investigations, inspections and enforcement action.

Regulation HSE must reject explicitly any deregulatory rules or pressures that would affect its ability to do its job.

Widespread problem Safety law-breaking is not a minority matter – lots are at it but go unseen because of HSE’s failure to inspect. HSE must demand the resources to do its job right.

Safety reps Lip service to safety reps is not good enough. There must be vigorous enforcement of safety reps’ rights and involvement of safety reps by HSE. A high level safety reps’ rights champion must be appointed by HSE to ensure this is given a top priority. 

Roving reps HSE must support roving safety reps to carry the union safety effect into small firms and throughout the supply chain, with special emphasis on high risk industries including construction and agriculture.

Justice at work The HSE consultation document acknowledges securing justice is a key goal. HSE should acknowledge this can only be achieved by giving individual directors explicit legal duties and accountability for health and safety.

The health and safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution. Comments can be submitted online, by email or by post. The consultation closes on 2 March 2009. www.hse.gov.uk/strategy.

Hazards Campaign: www.hazardscampaign.org.uk

There are other problems with the new ‘be part of the solution’ strategy. A consultation on the strategy due to end on 2 March 2009 would have been more than a non-binding discussion had Hazards not intervened. HSE insiders have admitted to Hazards the watchdog had hoped to keep the consultation informal, sidestepping the government’s Code of Practice on Consultation which says there must “be scope to influence the policy outcome.” Only after enquiries from Hazards was the consultation formalised and made subject to these rules.

One reason HSE may have wanted to keep the affair informal, is likely to be a desire to mimic Dame Carol’s consultation on work and health. The credibility of her proposals relied on a sign up supporters list of health, government and industry organisations. The fact that organisations like the Hazards Campaign and the TUC didn’t sign up because of misgivings about the approach, goes unmentioned.

HSE was seeking a similar coalition of the willing. Ahead of a series of consultation events, the watchdog said: “Key stakeholders will be invited to give HSE their views on the strategy and pledge their support on its delivery.” The problem here is the HSE strategy may in the end be quite good. But the capacity of an under-funded, under-staffed and hamstrung agency to deliver might mean it amounts to nothing more than good intentions.


1.DWP welfare reform webpages

2. Improving health at work: Changing lives, DWP/DH, November 2008 [pdf]

3. The health and safety of Great Britain - Be part of the solution, HSE, January 2009[pdf]

4. Where is the justice?, Hazards, number 104, October-December 2008

5. ‘Good work’: Job quality in a changing economy, The Work Foundation, September 2008

6. Nice work if you can get it, ippr, January 2009 [pdf]

7. Working for a healthier tomorrow, Work, Health and Wellbeing, March 2008 [pdf]

8. Sold out, Hazards, number 86, April-June 2004


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Credit crunch

The government says it will make work better for you and the employers have no complaints. There’s a welfare plan, there’s a health at work plan and there’s a health and safety at work plan.

The problem is the plans ask a lot of you – to work when sick, to forgo benefits and to swallow a diet of lifestyle preaching – while recession-hit safety takes a backseat and health and safety’s reeling regulator fades from view.

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