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       Hazards, number 162, 2023
SORRY STATE | The sickening impact of a tame watchdog
It’s not a good time to be a regulator. The Conservative government is regulation-averse and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has seen its job grow and budget shrink. But, warns Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, the watchdog has also bought in to a Tory hands-off approach that has seen accountability plummet and work-related harm soar.


The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is in a mess. Under the Conservatives, overall cash funding for the regulator fell sharply from £228m in 2010 to £126m in 2019.

There has been a recovery since then to £185m in 2022, but then HSE’s post-Brexit role has ballooned.

The overall real-terms funding is still 43 per cent below the 2010 level, once one-off ringfenced payments are taken into account. The ‘all inspector’ head count has fallen from 1,651 in 2003, to 1,187 in 2010, to the current figure of 974 – a 41 per cent reduction over 20 years.

It is part of a twin-track attack by the Conservatives, who have for over a decade had their sights on both safety regulations and the regulator charged with policing them.

STILL BAD  The government’s watered-down plans to scrap EU laws don’t go far enough and will continue to harm economic growth, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has warned. It said while health and safety standards are no longer up for review before the end of 2023, the Retained EU Law Bill gives ministers power to remove legislation they deem unfit and will continue to cause chaos for UK businesses. Over half of the 330 health and safety professionals surveyed by IOSH said the Bill will cost business more (55 per cent). Eight in ten (79 per cent) are opposed to the Bill.

This has consequences. In an April 2023 report, HSE inspectors’ union Prospect noted the number of mandatory investigations that weren’t carried out because of resourcing issues increased nearly 200-fold between 2016/17 and 2021/22.

HSE under pressure: a perfect storm, using HSE’s own figures, revealed that in 2016/17 there were just two mandatory investigations cancelled because of insufficient resources. In 2021/22 the figure was 389.

Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, commented: “If appropriate levels of inspections and mandatory investigations are not happening, half of them because of a lack of resources, then that should worry anyone who values safety at work.

“The bottom line is that if effective investigations cannot be carried out then those who are at fault for an accident may get away with it, depriving victims of justice and making workplaces less safe.”

No workplace is safe

It is not a matter of HSE concentrating resources on the highest risk workplaces. Those designated ‘low risk’ by HSE were abandoned officially a decade ago (Hazards 120). Workplaces, however deadly, could now be on the safely out of sight list.

For example, the number of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulatory inspectors policing hazardous installations, including chemical and explosives manufacturers and infectious disease units, has fallen by over 27 per cent since 2008.

The leaked figures for HSE’s Hazardous Installations Directorate, obtained by ENDS Report, cover its two separate divisions, Chemicals, Explosives and Microbiological Hazards Division (CHEMHD) and the Energy Division (ED). They show the number of regulatory inspectors within this directorate has declined from 130 in 2008 to just 95 in 2023.

Janet Newsham of the national Hazards Campaign described this as a “catastrophe waiting to happen.”  She warned “if we’re not careful, we’re going to see a major incident that shouldn’t be seen in this country because of the health and safety legislation that we have, purely because of lack of enforcement.

“The politicians say we have too much red tape, and they’re trying to undermine health and safety law so they can reduce the burden on business, but reducing the burden means exposing us to all sorts of potential catastrophes. We want red tape because it’s better than bloody bandages.”

Construction, Britain’s most dangerous sector, is another casualty. A Unite freedom of information request in 2023 revealed inspections in construction had declined by 32 per cent in a decade, from 11,303 unannounced construction inspections in 2013/14 to just 7,647 in 2022/23 [see: Site inspections at record low].

By contrast, prime minister Rishi Sunak has said he will increase immigration raids on workplaces by 50 per cent in 2023 (Hazards 161).

Rogue employers rule

When HSE does make forays into workplaces, the impact of its waning influence becomes immediately apparent.

More than four in five businesses checked during a May 2023 HSE inspection blitz on the Isle of Wight were in criminal breach of health and safety laws. Eleven inspectors visited 33 businesses on a two-day inspection programme and found 84 per cent were committing safety offences.

A similar HSE inspection initiative in January 2022, this time targeting 71 businesses in South Yorkshire, found almost two-thirds (65 per cent) were in criminal breach of safety law.  Ahead of a June 2023 inspection campaign on wood dust exposures in the sector, HSE admitted most firms were leaving their workers at risk of serious and potentially fatal diseases.

In 2022/23, the regulator had carried out more than 1,000 woodworking inspections and found 78 per cent of businesses were not complying with safety laws intended to protect workers from hardwoods, softwoods and composite materials such as MDF. These exposures can cause occupational diseases including cancers, asthma and dermatitis.

Crimes though, even when seen, are unlikely to result in punishment. In all three inspection initiatives, HSE told Hazards there were to be no prosecutions in relation to the criminal offences it observed. HSE takes fewer than 300 prosecutions a year now, less than half the level a decade ago.  Enforcement notices are down by over a third, from over 11,000 in 2010/11 – the year the Conservatives came to power – to under 7,000 in 2021/22. 

Someone has to pay the price of an absence of oversight and accountability. You.
Figures released by HSE in November 2022 reveal the number of workers in Great Britain suffering work-related ill-health is at an all-time high – 1.8 million in 2021/22, up from 1.7 million in 2020/21. The top line figure is now almost 40 per cent higher than when the Tories came to power in 2010, when the toll stood at 1.3 million cases (Hazards 160).

At the same time, Tory changes in compensation rules mean far fewer of those harmed are receiving compensation. Figures obtained by Hazards through Freedom of Information Act requests in 2012 and 2022, reveal there were 87,655 workplace injury and disease claims registered in 2011/12, but this had fallen to 44,435 in 2021/22 – a 50 per cent drop (Hazards 159).

It isn’t just what HSE can’t do that leaves workers vulnerable. It is what it refuses to do. It has refused to follow compelling evidence accepted by other regulators and introduce a more protective exposure standard for silica. It is dragging its feet on another carcinogen, diesel exhaust fume.

Before Brexit, it was a drag anchor on efforts in Europe to tighten standards.
And while stress, depression and anxiety are at a record high and cause more work-related sick leave than anything else, HSE long ago refused to introduce a workplace stress law – we only have stress management guidelines – and is adamant it will not even allow employers to report work-related suicides. [see: One last act].

Covid exposed

When another new hazard, the Covid-19 pandemic, hit workplaces early in 2020, HSE’s shortcomings were quickly exposed.

Early in 2021, Hazards published a devastating in-depth critique of HSE’s failures. Rubbed out highlighted “troubling evidence of a regulator, forced by circumstance or a lack of will, operating a Covid amnesty and handing over the reins to public health agencies unfamiliar with workplace practices and rules.”

Unions had warned throughout that frontline staff were being sacrificed. And studies confirmed that the risks were real. Those worst affected included teachers who had been told repeatedly by government, anxious to keep schools open and parents at work, they were not at an increased risk.

An April 2023 paper in the Journal of Occupational Medicine and Toxicology, examining infection patterns by occupation in England and Wales, confirmed “workers in healthcare, teaching, education and childcare, social care and community protective services, and leisure and personal service occupations demonstrated elevated overall infection risk.” It noted teachers, like health care workers, faced a “persistently elevated risk.”

Unlike education workers, a flat denial wasn’t so easy on health care risks. HSE needed another strategy – and that was to make the reports go away.

Almost two-thirds of NHS employers did not make a single, legally-required report of Covid being caught by staff working during the first 18 months of the pandemic. And four-fifths (82 per cent) of NHS employers did not report a single death of a worker from Covid caught while working in those first two waves between 1 March 2020 and
2 September 2021.

HSE had actively discouraged NHS Trusts from making reports under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR), either advising they were not reportable or rejecting reports and refusing to enter them on its RIDDOR database.

A genome sequencing study at Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which was told by HSE to “put a hold on submissions” during 2020, established 150 health care workers had been infected by patients in the first two Covid waves.

Approaching 800 families of NHS or social care workers across England have received payouts from the government’s Covid-19 life assurance scheme after a Covid death.

Where’s the watchdog?

Just six months into the Covid-19 crisis, Hazards warned that “the pandemic didn’t cause an enforcement crisis. It exposed it” (Hazards 151).

It is a sentiment shared by unions. Mike Clancy, general secretary of Prospect, said: “The Covid pandemic really highlighted that if you want safe workplaces then you need to have an effective regulator in place with sufficient skills and capacity to inspect workplaces and hold employers to account."

Calling on the government “to wake up”, he added: “This is a problem that is mirrored across the public sector and in regulators in particular: Insufficient pay, too much work, and the loss of key skills to the better-paying private sector.”

The TUC concurred. In June 2023, a TUC report observed that real terms cuts and underinvestment in public services from 2010 to 2020 undermined the UK’s ability to provide an effective and coherent response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with workplace safety among the casualties.

Austerity and the pandemic: How cuts damaged four vital pillars of pandemic resilience’ noted: “During the pandemic, instead of raising the number of inspections and enforcement notices, they fell to an all-time low, despite widespread workplace linked cases of infection.”

Calling for long-term, adequate funding for HSE to enable necessary recruitment and enforcement, it added: “To be resilient and prepared for a future pandemic, Britain’s health and safety regulators need reinvestment and rebuilding. Otherwise working people’s health and safety will be left at unacceptable risk, and workplaces could be centres of transmission affecting the wider community.”

Whether it is infections, injuries or work diseases, left unpoliced, this unprecedented workplace health crisis will only get worse.



Site inspections at record low

Life-saving proactive inspections in the construction industry have fallen to a record low, Unite has revealed.

A freedom of information request made by the union discovered that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) undertook only 7,647 unannounced site inspections in 2022/23, a two per cent decline on the previous low last year, when there were 7,793 inspections.

Construction is the most dangerous sector in the UK and Unite says these unannounced inspections by HSE are critical in ensuring that employers don’t ignore safety laws and risk the lives of their workers.

However, the union warns the number of inspections conducted by the HSE has been falling consistently since 2010, when the Conservative-led government slashed the regulator’s funding as part of austerity cutbacks. In 2013/14, the HSE made 11,303 ‘proactive’ site inspections – they have declined by nearly a third (32 per cent) since that time.

Unite general secretary Sharon Graham said: “These are highly disturbing figures, levels of construction work aren’t decreasing, so how can construction workers be kept safe when inspections continue to decline? Construction remains the UK’s most dangerous industry and it is completely unacceptable for construction safety to be undermined in this manner.”

Unite national officer Jerry Swain said: “The truth is that many construction employers are all too prepared to play fast and loose with construction safety and it is only the fear of being caught that keeps them on the straight and narrow. The declining number of inspections will sadly increase the temptation to cut corners on safety.”

Top of the page






It’s not a good time to be a regulator. The Conservative government is regulation-averse and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has seen its job grow and budget shrink. But, warns Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, the watchdog has also bought in to a Tory hands-off approach that has seen accountability plummet and work-related harm soar.

No workplace is safe
Rogue employers rule
Covid exposed
Where’s the watchdog?

Site inspections at record low

Hazards webpages
Deadly business