Research for truth
[Hazards 65, page 14-15, Jan - March 1999]
HSE research activity: Who for, for what purpose
and who owns it?
Research for truth?
Occupational health research might seem a safe enough topic. But
the wrong research and the wrong researchers can be very bad for
your health, Professor Andy Watterson tells Hazards.
Research on occupational health and safety hazards can have a number
of positive purposes.
It may provide important information. This may
help to identify new diseases or accident patterns in workplaces
or the causes of particular risks. It may explore solutions to old
technical or organisational problems.
It may examine how effective education programmes
are or how big an impact information and advice leaflets have in
improving health and safety.
It may even examine how effective inspectors and
technical services are. HSE work on the costs of accidents and ill-health,
national surveys of workforce ill-health and programmes investigating
technical solutions to noise problems show the value of such research.
But the wrong research wrongly motivated can cause
a lot of damage by influencing health and safety policy for the
worse and by diverting resources from useful research.
Dr Jim McQuaid, HSE's director of science and technology,
says: "HSE's system is highly responsive but inherently unstable.
It needs good intelligence, alertness and fit-for-purpose monitoring
to prevent it going awry."1 But it frequently does go awry,
for reasons including political interference, poor selection of
external researchers and through sloppy or compromised work (see
Under the Tories, HSE spent a small fortune on
research programmes to investigate the cost effectiveness of health
and safety regulation; John Rimington, then director general of
HSE, reflected the Conservative government's deregulation agenda,
railing against new EU safety laws and their more prescriptive "Bismarkian
and Napoleonic traditions". Hazards at that time said: "The
role of HSC and HSE in assisting the government attacks on workplace
standards is becoming overtly political" (Hazards 53).
HSE has been guilty of repeating research done
elsewhere. This has little effect on workplace health and safety
but can involve large sums of money and much time.
Repeating the same errors makes revisiting research
topics doubly pointless. HSE has returned to the topics of new management
techniques and "accident proneness" over the last four
years but never yet managed to cite the great body of union research
and other literature showing the detrimental impact on health and
safety of these approaches - despite Hazards offering assistance,
contacts and references (Hazards, No.58 and No.64: see box).
Central to the functioning of any workplace health
and safety research programme in the UK should be information not
only about funding - sums, criteria and control - but the prioritisation
of research, its framing and uses, who controls outcomes, publication
and access, who reviews the outcomes of the research, how independent
and ethical is the research done? (Hazards 60)
An avowed aim of HSE is to evaluate its research
"to determine effectiveness and efficiency of project activity,
and to identify the impacts of research and assess the relationship
between those impacts and the objectives of the research."2
How this is being implemented and how transparent the process is
or will be is unclear.
The HSE funds some "in-house" research
- with 133 staff working on research projects in its Health and
Safety Laboratory division - and also, on its own or in conjunction
with other government departments, funds contract research in unusual
ways - sometimes based on "closed" invitations to particular
bodies and agencies to bid for work without putting programmes out
In 1998, HSE reported that its mainstream research
programme utilises £22 million a year of which 70 per cent
is already committed to projects commissioned in previous years.
Opaqueness in research programmes may lead to considerable
scepticism about the purpose and findings of such work. HSE states
that it "is HSE policy to make the results of research available,
wherever possible." Again, how this will be implemented is
not yet clear.
HSC has tripartite committees - joint government-industry-union
- which may ask members for research topics to explore in HSE research
programmes. HSE itself argues that its Occupational Health Advisory
Committee which has trade union and employer reps "can provide
a strategic steer" on research directions.
HSE also aims to get 30 per cent of its research
funding from collaborative projects especially by 1998-99 but the
implications of this proposal for the nature, quality, objectivity
and access to the research done are not revealed by HSE.
Currently it "selects research contractors
by a variety of means" stating that it is trying to "broaden
its contractor base" using its Mainstream Research Market annual
publication to alert possible contractors about work.
In reality HSE has its favourites. It currently
has 200 different research contractors. Only "occasionally"
are open adverts used to invite proposals. Cryptically, the HSE
tells enquirers that all HSE research is let by competitive tendering
"except where it does not make sense to do so." Effectively
the research contracting and tendering process has led to a relatively
small number of bodies receiving significant funding.
Top contractors over the five years from 1993/4
to 1997/8 have included the Institute of Occupational Medicine in
Scotland (receiving £2,951,000 over the five years); the Universities
of Nottingham, Manchester, Southampton, Newcastle, London; and commercial
organisations like Zeneca (£447,000 on its own or in partnership),
WS Atkins (£124,000) and British Gas Technology (£164,000).
HSE's selection criteria are hazy. Convictions
for safety offences appear to be no barrier to a company getting
its snout into HSE's research trough. Since it was fined £2,000
in 1997 for criminal offences related to a botched asbestos stripping
job WS Atkins has bagged a cool £1.4 million plus in HSE research,
consultancy and other work - more than 10 times the research it
secured in the five years prior to conviction. The company declined
to answer Hazards questions on its good fortune.
HSE research funding - in terms of topics covered,
costing by staff years or cash, agencies included and so on - has
changed significantly over the last seven or eight years. In 1996/97,
mainstream research funding - covering fire and explosions (3.7m),
engineering (1.5m), work environment (3.9m), occupational health
(5.2m), behavioural and social sciences (2.3m) and risk assessment
(1.9m) - totalled £18.5 million pounds. Intramural funding,
funding available within HSE, in 1996/97 totalled £11.2 million.
The best model for UK research should address key
problems in workplace health and safety and actions needed to remedy
them. This should be determined by a wide consultation process and
should have clear goals aimed at producing effective solutions.
Action research and evaluation and audit on identified hazards should
take precedence in research programmes. An open tendering process
with clear criteria and feedback and disclosure of results in the
public domain is needed.
The European Union SAFE programme and the USA's
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have supported
research programmes geared specifically to worker organisations
where trade unions and other bodies can bid for funds to "explore"
new solutions to workplace death and injury, something HSE does
not do. The UK should develop such an approach.
HSE should also endeavour to ensure its research
is based not on flavour of the month, but on a proper assessment
of needs of those on the blunt end - the workforce. The US government's
National Occupational Research Agenda is agreed after extensive
public meetings and hearings.3 This year, Hazards has been invited
to participate in one such meeting on health and safety implications
of work organisation on health.
There are funding implications. The National Institute
for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the US government's
dedicated research arm, is to receive $200,000,000 for research
alone this year, about 20 per cent more per employee than in the
1. R&D efficiency. Volume 7, Issue 6, April 1998. HSE.
2. From HSE website at http://www.open.gov.uk/hse/research/mrn9899a.htm
3. NIOSH National Occupational Research Agenda and update July 1997.
4. NORA News, Volume 1, Number 3, Fall 1998.
How HSE commissions research and reports
research findings allows HSE to further its own views and
rubbish others. Take three recent HSE research publications:
A 1996 report and accompanying literature
search on new management techniques missed an entire body
of health research linking them to strain injuries and other
health problems (Hazards 58).
A 1998 review on individual differences in
accident liability rehashed an approach discredited in the
1960s linking accidents to individual character flaws such
as "unstable extroverts" and "unstable introverts"
And a 1998 report which concluded there was
no excess miscarriage risk in a group of Scottish microelectronics
workers was slated at an industry-led conference in Houston,
USA, in the media and in academic journals. Letters to the
International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health
said the study was too small to reach such definitive conclusions,
data on working conditions were too patchy and in excluding
women with a history of previous spontaneous abortions HSE
"could well have biased the results."
Business re-engineering and health and safety management.
Health and Safety Executive Contract Research Report 123/1996
(and literature review CRR 124/1996).
Individual differences in accident liability: A review.
Elliott R and others. Spontaneous abortion in the UK semiconductor
industry: An HSE investigation. HSE, C160 3/98, 1998.
Wishing away work hazards
Not everything is always as it seems in the
world of health and safety research. HSE top brass can put
a rosy tint on a unhealthy picture by...
DECEIT Withholding crucial findings.
The failure to publish in full the 1995 results of HSE-backed
research on the safety of respirators for asbestos removal
work - some, but HSE won't publish which, worked 50 times
less efficiently than claimed and leaked asbestos right into
the operator's breathing zone - was not just unethical, it
was criminally dangerous (Hazards 53).
GLOSS Drawing less troublesome conclusions
publicly than the research findings really suggest. HSE consistently
plays down the detrimental effect on eyes of VDU work because
the damage is thought to be reversible. But HSE glossed over
research finding that indicated overworked VDU eyes could
be affected for just about every waking hour, affecting the
workers' comfort, performance and their safety on the drive
home. The existence of Computer Vision Syndrome, a condition
recognised by official agencies in the US and Scandinavia,
didn't merit a mention at all (Hazards No.58 and No.57).
COMPLACENCY HSE was on the verge of
weakening the already weak occupational standard for the solvent
methylene chloride. The plans were only shelved in January
after HSE saw a Hazards article strongly critical of HSE's
secret plans and which gave the scientific evidence that led
the US authorities to introduce a new standard four times
as stringent as HSE's current level (Hazards 64).
ARROGANCE In 1998 HSE repeated a 1996
exercise intended to assess stress in NHS staff. The results
both time showed that higher grades were more stressed than
lower grades, the opposite of the usual trend observed. However,
the methodology used in the 1996 study was strongly criticised
by health service union UNISON at the time, including a charge
the techniques failed to take account of language or literacy
problems, inevitably resulting in fewer ancillary staff participating
in the research.
The 1998 research followed the same protocol
and reached the same conclusions. Other flaws included a failure
to even mention the existence of unions, despite concluding
that communication was one of the crucial factors in mitigating
work stress. Instead of recommending informed participation
through existing union safety consultative procedures, the
authors recommended ansafones and pigeon holes to allow workers
NEVER NEVER Shunting problems off
into a project or long term "research" programme.
Research on organophosphate (OP) pesticides and on the benefits
of roving safety representatives in construction and agriculture,
discussed for years, fall into this category.
Professor Andy Watterson is director of the Centre for Occupational
and Environmental Health Policy Research, De Montfort University,