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       Hazards, number 163, 2023
GHOSTED | HSE is missing in action: Workers pay with their lives
A public body that operates in secret. A safety regulator that tolerates deadly risks. A watchdog that is rarely seen. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says the Health and Safety Executive has a lot of questions to answer.


At first glance, you could put it all down to a lack of resources. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has seen its base budget drop by over 40 per cent since the Tories came to power in 2010, before you even consider the impact of inflation.

HSE’s ‘all inspectors’ count fell from 1,651 in 2010 to 974 in 2023, mirroring the funding cut.  Inspections and investigations have become vanishingly rare, with the figures from HSE’s 2022/23 annual report indicating the average workplace enforced by HSE might expect a visit less than once every 50 years. In April 2023, HSE inspectors’ union Prospect warned that almost 400 ‘mandatory’ inspections were cancelled last year because of insufficient resources (Hazards 162).

It’s not working. Work-related ill-health is at an all-time high. Fatalities bucked a recent trend and increased last year.

Budget cuts have played a part in HSE – the inspector, the investigator, the enforcer – becoming an absentee regulator. But it is not that simple.

Whimpering watchdog

Too many bad moves, permeating every facet of the regulator’s work, have seen HSE drift towards self-imposed irrelevance.

HSE won’t budge from an exposure standard for silica far weaker than those enforced by the more responsible national regulators, even though its own estimates tell it Britain’s less protective limit leads to hundreds and possibly thousands of excess preventable deaths each year (Hazards 161).

Two of the biggest threats of the last three years – thousands of workplace Covid outbreaks (Hazards 153) and an unprecedented occupational stress epidemic (Hazards 162) – saw the HSE take not one single piece of enforcement action.

TORY TAKEOVER   Prospect union rep and HSE inspector Geoff Fletcher told the TUC’s September 2023 Congress that “insufficient HSE independence from government” led the regulator’s leadership to insist inspectors weren’t allowed to wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE) when visiting workplaces, including those with Covid outbreaks, “because COSHH didn’t apply”. But COSHH is the regulation covering biological hazards at work. Former Conservative health and safety minister Sarah Newton was appointed HSE chair on 1 August 2020. 

It took a year for FBU to wring an apology out of HSE after it ignored a request for assistance when firefighters were told to fight some serious fires without life-sustaining breathing apparatus (BA). The firefighters’ union is still waiting for a substantive response. The potentially deadly BA policy is still in place.

HSE won’t consider investigating suicides, even where there’s copper-bottomed evidence the job was the primary cause. The suicide of Ruth Perry in January 2023 is a case in point.  Ruth did not suffer mental health problems. You can draw a straight line between Ofsted’s brutish imposition of a downgrading on her school and her local authority employer’s handling of the problem, and her desperate last act. HSE wouldn’t even take a look.

An effective, visible and engaged HSE has never been more necessary. But HSE isn’t interested.

Board sick

The malaise starts at the top. HSE’s board oversees the regulator’s work, deciding policy and priorities.

But for the last two years, TUC has been sidelined. For the first time in HSE’s near 50-year history there has been no TUC representative serving on the board, and the total union presence has been reduced from three to two seats on the 11-member body. One seat – the chair – is held by Sarah Newton, whose previous job was as a Conservative MP and the Tory government’s health and safety minister.

The dilution in the union presence is not for want of suitably qualified candidates. High profile rejects include a current highly respected trade union general secretary with members in a safety critical sector and, last year, the TUC’s then deputy general secretary and now general secretary, Paul Nowak.

If the workers’ voice in HSE has been quietened on the inside, it has been silenced entirely on the outside.

A statement regarding HSE board meetings on the regulator’s website notes: “HSE is committed to being open, so we publish the latest meeting agendas, papers and minutes.”

                 Source: HSE ‘our management’ webpage

Only it doesn’t. No agendas or papers have been published in advance of meetings for seven years. The papers haven’t been published at all.

HSE, though, sees it differently. In a statement, it told Hazards: “The HSE Board is fully committed to operating in a transparent and open way. In 2021, seeking to improve the way in which it engages with stakeholders, the board revised its approach and introduced a general meeting, which is held annually, and which is fully open to our stakeholders. At the general meeting, which also broadcast live on the internet, the board take questions from those present and online. Two General Meetings have been held, in 2022 and 2023.

“In addition to the above, the board introduced a standard set of papers for each meeting, which are routinely published. These comprise the Chief Executive’s report to the board and the full agenda and minutes of all 10 board meetings, subject to any redactions for confidentiality.”

Secret service

HSE is dissembling. Minutes, papers and agendas are no longer published in advance of HSE board meetings. The first six HSE board meetings in 2023, for example, published nothing but severely truncated minutes, and then only after approval at a subsequent HSE board meeting.

You have to go back to explore records of the 2015 HSE board meetings in the National Archives to see HSE operating with real transparency, when agendas were published in advance of every meeting, and included the papers to be discussed. The first two meetings that year alone included 14 substantive papers.

Now, HSE’s policy proposals and justifications are unseen. And is impossible to elucidate any contentious content. Instead, questions raised by board members receive this stock and frequently deployed response: “The Board sought and received assurance.”

Without agendas and papers, it is impossible for union members to make informed contributions to discussions on policy and practice. Meeting minutes, when they are available, are so opaque to be largely useless. Relying on a chief executive’s report provides only HSE’s handed picked, edited and self-censored version of events.

JUST A MINUTE  Publishing sometimes heavily redacted minutes from HSE board meetings is not ‘openness’. And these, on the regulator’s Covid strategy, were only released after a Hazards freedom of information request (Hazards 153).

In one shocking example, Hazards forced HSE through a freedom of information request to release the minutes of the December 2020 closed board meeting. The document was so heavily redacted it was impossible to discern anything concrete about HSE’s strategy.

At the height of the Covid pandemic and when most of the workforce was unvaccinated, details of HSE’s revised ‘key priorities’ and ‘regulatory framework’ were blanked out entirely (Hazards 153).

During one of the most acute workplace health crises of modern times, the opportunity for informed public participation was denied.

Little assurance

In even the best possible scenario, participation now involves reading what HSE has decided weeks later, in the minutes, or witnessing a stage-managed, closely curated presentation at its annual general meeting.

QUE SERA SARAH  Former Conservative MP and health and safety minister Sarah Newton – the current HSE chair – introduced the regulator’s 2023 annual general meeting. Since her appointment in August 2020 to the £80,000-85,000 part-time post, unions have lost the TUC seat on the HSE board and have warned the resource-poor regulator lacks independence from government.

This is a serious departure from even HSE’s latest board operating framework, which itself reflects the ‘tell them what we’ve done, not ask them what we should do’ approach.

On ‘openness’, the July 2022 framework notes: “The Board recognises the importance of meeting its openness and transparency obligations. It undertakes to regularly publish the agenda, minutes and Chief Executive’s report, for each board meeting, once the minutes have been cleared at a subsequent meeting.” It adds: “Papers and minutes from the non-confidential Board items will be translated and published on HSE’s website.”

However, after the fact openness is not really openness at all. And there have been no papers. This paper commitment doesn’t allow public scrutiny or informed public debate and it undermines accountability.

But what we get now is worse still. When it comes to issues fundamental to our healthy survival at work, we have nothing more than HSE’s “assurance” everything will be OK.

WHO KNOWS BEST? Unions are a critical factor in securing safer workplaces, but have seen a TUC seat removed from the HSE board and safety reps and affiliates denied the opportunity to scrutinise HSE policies before they are rubber stamped by an increasingly compliant board. www.hazards.org/unioneffect





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A public body that operates in secret. A safety regulator that tolerates deadly risks. A watchdog that is rarely seen. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says the Health and Safety Executive has a lot of questions to answer.

Whimpering watchdog
Board sick
Secret service
Little assurance

Hazards webpages
Deadly business
Union effect