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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 box).

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 to tender.

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 UK.4

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.

Rubbish research

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" (Hazards 64).

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. HSE. 1998.
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 to "participate".

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, Leicester.

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Rubbish research: How HSE commissions research and reports research findings allows HSE to further its own views and rubbish others click here

Wishing away work hazards: HSE's health and safety research problems Click here

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