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Shusssssh. Don’t mention the “e” word

The top dog at the UK’s workplace safety watchdog has said flexibility and partnership are its new watch words – but has downplayed the Health and Safety Executive’s enforcement role. Geoffrey Podger, chief executive of HSE, told the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) conference on 28 March: “If we are going to ensure the world of work is as safe and as sustainable as possible, then we need to be flexible enough to respond effectively to the challenges as they arise.” His comments came on the heels of new HSE statistics revealing a sharp upturn in workplace fatalities.

Mr Podger’s speech made a brief nod to inspection and enforcement – he said both “are very important to us” and claimed after the recent dramatic decline in enforcement activity HSE had “turned the tide as far as both prosecutions and the serving of notices is concerned” – but he provided no supporting data and the remainder of his speech was overwhelmingly an argument for much greater self-regulation.

He said: “Partnership is one of our key strategic themes. And is it not the case that when a number of organisations come together to work towards shared goals, they are far more effective than one operating alone?”

The HSE boss added the enforcement agency is working very closely with local authorities, and other organisations such as the Institute of Directors (IoD) to achieve mutual objectives. He said through new authoritative guidance on directors’ responsibilities for health and safety prepared by IoD, due to be released in draft form in May, HSE with the IoD is reaching out to boards and directors to secure their commitment to ensure successful health and safety performance.

His comments are likely to interest unions and safety campaigners. They have repeatedly warned that voluntary measures and partnership have a role, but not at the expense of enforcement and proper legal duties on company bosses. Unions have also been seeking explicit legal safety duties on company directors. HSE prosecutions, convictions, inspections, workplace visits, improvement notices and prohibition notices have all fallen dramatically in recent years.

HSE's claim that its strategy is working was dealt a serious blow last month when it was revealed there had been a dramatic increase in workplace fatalities. Provisional HSE figures show 124 workers had died in the six months from April to September 2006. If this trend is maintained for the remainder of the reporting year it would mean a 17 per cent increase on last year’s fatality total of 212 worker deaths, reaching a five year high. Preliminary full year figures for the construction industry have revealed the deadly trend in that sector in fact accelerated in the second half of the year, from October 2006 to March 2007. Early indications are that 78 construction workers died in 2006/07, up from 59 the previous year – a 32 per cent increase. Unconfirmed reports suggest the fatality figure for the sector may be higher still, with additional deaths still to be added to the official tally.

HSE is in the throes of a major austerity programme, with hundreds of jobs to be lost and a range of work programmes curtailed. It is also considering the closure of a number of offices. Internal papers seen by Hazards show HSE’s National Agriculture Centre at Stoneleigh in Warwickshire is to close, in a decision made without any consultation with staff or unions.

Source: Hazards online report, 5 April 2007

HSE news release