Click image for a larger view

Hazards magazine, number 98, April-June 2007

Cross words

  Because you’re not worth it
  Wrong headed HSC
  Unite calls for action on enforcement
  Help wanted
  So, who will enforce workplace safety?
  Hey Stop Enforcing


Buy Hazards 98

Back to safety reps

Order this article

Cross words artwork: Ned Jolliffe




HSE blocks new rights, says lives are not worth saving

As workplace deaths rise dramatically and the Health and Safety Executive’s austerity programme leaves it haemorrhaging staff, mothballing work programmes and shutting offices, Hazards editor Rory O’Neill looks for clues on what unions – snubbed and so far refused any new rights by HSE after its worker involvement consultation - should do next.


It seemed a simple enough procedure. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) undertakes a major consultation exercise asking how to improve worker consultation (Hazards 94). It finds out what employers, unions and others want. It makes the changes for which there is general support.

It just didn’t turn out that way. What happened instead made last year’s consultation a costly waste of time and a major snub to trade unions.

More than 9 of 10 respondents to the consultation supported a right for safety reps to be consulted on risk assessments and to receive a response to safety queries. But an HSE paper to the 15 March Health and Safety Commission (HSC) meeting recommended there should be no change in the law and no new consultation rights. The HSE paper noted: “There will be a high level of interest in the results of the consultation from stakeholders. In particular, the TUC and trade unions are likely to be disappointed that our proposals are not more far-reaching.” Earlier this year Hazards predicted HSE would attempt to block any new rights (Hazards 97).

Commenting on the outcome of the HSC meeting, a TUC spokesperson told Hazards TUC was “disappointed that, despite overwhelming support for legislative change, the HSC deferred making a decision on the modest proposals that had been consulted on. We urge the HSC to respect the views of those employers, safety representatives and safety professionals who responded to the consultation exercise and implement the proposed changes as soon as possible.”

After an intervention from TUC commissioners, it was agreed there should be further discussions involving the TUC and employers’ organisation CBI on whether changes could be made to either the regulations or the related approved code of practice to deliver a safety rep right to be consulted on risk assessments and to receive a response to safety queries. A further paper on legislative changes will be produced in the next few months.

HSC chair Bill Callaghan managed to put a positive gloss on a process which has seriously dented the credibility of both HSE and HSC and led to questions about their commitment to genuine consultation. Commenting on a number of non-binding, voluntary measures also recommended in the HSE paper and agreed by the meeting, including guidance for employers, a revision of the ‘Brown Book’ on safety reps’ rights and online tools for safety reps, he said: “This new approach, building on the achievements already delivered, will help to bring workers and their employers together to raise workplace standards and improve health and safety performance.”


Because you’re not worth it

The Health and Safety Executive recommended no new right for safety reps, not because they couldn’t prove they would save lives, but because they couldn’t prove they would save money.

HSE’s paper to the 15 March HSC meeting said: “Our Regulatory Impact Assessment (RIA) estimated the total annual cost of the two changes to the law at £2.9-£4.2m, while benefits were £0.3m.” It added “respondents did not produce information to show that the benefits of legislative change – even on the relatively small scale proposed – would outweigh the costs. In spite of the question expressly seeking such evidence, there was no substantive additional information in reply.”

HSE’s own calculation, however, had attracted widespread ridicule for being an exercise in back-of-an-envelope economics. Usdaw described it as “a joke”, GMB as “bearing no relation to reality or the facts” and UNISON as evidence “HSE seems to have made up its mind already” (Hazards 97).

There is a strong, government accepted, argument that union safety reps do save both lives and money. DTI’s January 2007 consultation document on workplace representatives reported that at 2004 prices, safety reps save society between £181m and £587m each year though a lost time reduction from occupational injuries and illnesses of between 286,000 and 616,000 days.

Comparing the upper and lower figures from HSE’s RIA and the DTI document, the new rights would require only a marginal improvement in this safety rep effect – possibly under 0.5 per cent and no more than 2.3 per cent - to offset any costs. Even then, the DTI figures are viewed by unions as a considerable under-estimate. It is likely only miniscule improvements in safety rep performance would more than offset the costs of new regulations.

DTI estimates that the safety rep role results in the prevention of between 3,000 and 8,000 work-related illnesses each year. Some of these will, presumably be chronic conditions that can kill – cancer, heart disease and respiratory conditions, for example. With just one occupational cancer death costed by Defra in a May 2006 paper at £2.46m, it would only take the prevention of a handful of additional serious conditions to more than offset the costs of greatly enhanced safety reps’ rights, far beyond the extremely modest changes priced by HSE.

But the bigger question is this – should HSE be arguing against health and safety improvements purely on cost grounds, and using extremely shaky economics to boot? It was an approach used by the Reagan administration in the US, where it attracted vicious criticism from unions.

George Taylor, who used to head the safety department of the US national union federation AFL-CIO and who died aged 95 in March, was famously contemptuous of this approach. He said it was “an arid exercise in controlling lives,” adding: “you don’t make policy concerning human lives based on dollar costs.” The union economist concluded: “If there is a reasonable belief that a large number of people are going to be put at risk, you try to prevent it. You don’t wait until you can count the last pair of lungs on the dissecting table.”

HSC news release. Worker Involvement: results of the consultation exercise and a proposed approach to current and future work, HSE paper to the HSC meeting, 15 March 2007 [pdf].
Workplace representatives: A review of their facilities and facility time, DTI, January 2007. more

Wrong headed HSC

Bill Callaghan, who receives a salary as HSC chair of over £108,800 for a four day week to be the public face of HSC as a whole, waited just six days to put his own personal views on the consultation issue. In a 21 March public lecture, he sidestepped the views of respondents to the consultation. “My view is that informal regulation via unions and employers will be more efficient and less onerous than regulation imposed externally, either by HSE or through the courts,” he said.

Privately, unions are deeply frustrated with the tripartite HSC’s failure to reflect the findings of the consultation in new policy. Publicly, the anger has centred on HSE for recommending inaction in the first place. Bob Blackman, TGWU national secretary for construction, said it seemed that “if you're an employer your voice will be heard but if you're a trade union putting forward carefully crafted arguments you will be ignored.” He added: “These are harsh words for the HSE but when they ignore the 91 per cent who backed a duty to consult safety reps and the 96 per cent said there should be a duty to respond to representations from safety reps what else are we supposed to think?”

Rob Miguel, Amicus health and safety officer, said the decision was “embarrassing” and “a slap in the face for safety reps”. He added: “It is an outrage that genuine consultation was literally being ignored. As well as overwhelming trade union support for changes in the consultation, 72 per cent of employers were also in favour of a duty to respond to representations from safety reps.”

Amicus – which merged with TGWU on 1 May to form Unite, Britain’s largest union – said it is also angry that the HSE paper failed to address the lack of enforcement of safety reps’ existing rights and other safety rules, despite evidence of this given during consultation. It has written to HSE asking it to reconsider its position.

The unions have been backed by Bolton North-east MP David Crausby. He said HSE’s recommendation “is an incredibly embarrassing decision, in the light of such an overwhelming response in favour from the consultation. This change would have given health and safety reps real teeth, but it seems HSE has caved in to the CBI and the EEF.”

Amicus has called for complaints about the HSE recommendations to be made directly to HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger. A statement said: “What is most insulting is the slap in the face to safety reps, who each day make it their life to improve the working environment, helping work colleagues and their employers to ensure people go home safe. “Employers themselves recognise this fact, and the majority have shown their support in their response; it seems the HSE is willing to chance slapping them in the face as well.”

The Amicus stance was supported by the national Hazards Campaign. Spokesperson Hilda Palmer urged “all safety reps and organisations concerned with health and safety to read the paper and make appropriate complaints to the chief executive of the HSE, Geoffrey Podger, as the paper is an appalling travesty of the facts and damages their credibility.”

Unite calls for action on enforcement

A dramatic increase in workplace deaths shows the need for more resources for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and a reversal in the downward trend in enforcement, Britain’s biggest union has said. Unite, the union formed in May from the merger of TGWU and Amicus, made the call after latest provisional figures showed workplace fatalities in the construction industry increased last year by over 30 per cent.

Unite is concerned that this and enforcement trends – a 27 April 2007 report for construction union UCATT has claimed that the proportion of deaths in the sector that were followed by a prosecution had fallen by nearly threequarters in the period from 1998 to 2004 – show the safety watchdog is increasingly reluctant to take the necessary enforcement action after criminal safety breaches.

HSE challenged the findings of the UCATT report when the story was picked up the BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, saying in a comment released to the press there was only a “possible 10-15 per cent rise in fatal accidents”, later defending this figure when challenged by Hazards magazine. However, HSE later conceded its own estimate was wrong and amended the press release online to say there was a “possible 20-25 per cent risk in fatal accidents” in the construction sector, although the revised figures were not distributed to HSE’s press list.

Amicus and the Centre for Corporate Accountability, which prepared the report for UCATT, criticised HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger’s defence of his organisation’s enforcement record, which included a statement that “this is not a police state”. They point out that his own memo last year commenting on the findings of an internal HSE audit conceded enforcement rates should be “considerably greater” and warned that “the implications of this need to concern us all” (Hazards 96).

Rob Miguel, health and safety officer with Unite’s Amicus section, said: “It seems though that HSE has written off over half those devastated families within these figures. For many years we have campaigned for increased enforcement for health and safety breaches, and despite HSE worries about a police state, they are more than concerned over the lack of enforcement themselves.”

CCA news release including text of the HSE internal memo • HSE news release • CCA/UCATT report [pdf]
Hazards HSE is broke feature which first revealed HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger’s concern about the prosecutions shortfall.


Help wanted

Unions contend that safety reps can play a vital role policing workplace safety standards, something accepted is the DTI paper (Hazards 97). They say expending that role through better consultation and new rights – roving reps, serving provisional improvement notices - would be a low cost, high impact way of complementing the HSE role.

HSE has never been in greater need of help. An austerity programme has seen it institute a ‘How and where we work’ review, which looks set to result in office closures nationwide, with tentative plans to relocate most of HSE’s London HQ staff outside the capital. An HSE board decision has already been taken to close HSE’s National Agriculture Centre – without any consultation with HSE unions, staff or farming unions or employers. HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger apologised to unions for the failure to consult, but the closure is to go ahead anyway.

An HSE job reduction programme, which aims to shed up to 350 staff over two years (Hazards 96) is continuing, with Geoffrey Podger telling staff on 22 March: “It remains essential that we continue with the planned reductions in post through natural wastage in HSE.”

In January, HSE inspectors’ union Prospect warned that HSE’s Corporate Medical Unit has lost so many doctors and nurses it could no longer operate effectively (Hazards 97). With provisional statistics suggesting workplace fatalities in 2006/07 could hit a five year high (page 9), and with construction deaths for the year up by almost a third, Prospect says HSE does not have the resources to enforce new laws.

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of PCS, one of the HSE unions, said the provisional deaths figure “should be a wake up call to the government who should be investing in safety rather than crude cost cutting.” He added: “Cutting jobs and resources leads to fewer inspections which in turn results in tragic consequences.”

Neil Hope-Collins, chair of Prospect’s HSE branch, said; “HSE has suffered year-on-year real term cuts since 2002 with recent constraints on funding resulting in the need to cut over 280 jobs by next year. These dramatic cuts are required to remain within existing funding limits.” He added if the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) “chooses to impose its 15 per cent efficiency savings at the cost of health and safety, then even more jobs will be lost from 2008 to 2011” and could “decimate frontline services.”

Prospect negotiator Mike MacDonald added: “The government's refusal to back the call for proper resources for inspection and accident investigation ignores the stack of evidence that enforcing the law is the most effective motivator for business to improve health and safety standards.” He added: “In addition to the families devastated by the rise in construction site fatalities, there are numerous other lives wrecked by horrendous injuries at work who will never get justice because the cutbacks have resulted in a restriction of the accident selection criteria used to prompt an investigation.”

So, who will enforce workplace safety?

The holes in the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) enforcement cover are becoming increasingly apparent.

HSE union Prospect welcomed the new construction, design and management regulations which took effect on 6 April, for example, but raised serious questions about the resource-depleted watchdog’s ability to enforce the new rules. It said HSE, the body responsible for inspecting workplaces, is already reeling from massive job cuts and faces a further drive to find 15 per cent cost savings over the next three years.

Neil Hope-Collins, chair of Prospect’s HSE branch, said “you have to ask who will enforce the new regulations?” He added that further “efficiency” measures by DWP could mean more long-term job losses, saying “this drive for savings means that HSE’s construction division alone faces a 10 per cent drop in its share of allocated resources for next year, even before the DWP’s efficiency savings are factored in, and that picture is reflected across the organisation.”

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of construction union UCATT, said: “The lives of building workers cannot be reduced to a financial cost. The government must reverse these cuts and put extra resources into ensuring that this inherently dangerous industry is made safer.” The new law requires greater safety coordination between all employers on a construction site.

Retail union Usdaw has written to HSE slamming plans to scrap one of just two inspectors responsible for developing national safety policies in the food and agriculture sector. The food manufacturing sector has a high accident rate but budget cuts at HSE have led it to axe one of the inspectors working with trade union and employer organisations to develop safe working initiatives.

“Usdaw is saying loud and clear this is very short-sighted decision especially when the two inspectors have played key roles in reducing accidents in the food sector by 37 per cent,” said Usdaw national officer Bill Snell.

REAL LIFE Scaffolder Ralph “Barney” Kennedy was electrocuted while working on a London council estate in September 2006. His death was one of the 78 construction deaths in 2006/07, a year that saw a 32 per cent surge in site fatalities. The Construction Safety Campaign (CSC) joined family members including Barney’s partner, Kelly, (centre) outside an April inquest into his death. CSC secretary Tony O’Brien said construction’s poor safety record “will not change until the government reverses its deregulatory programme and puts much more resources into the enforcement of our safety laws”. He added it must introduce “corporate manslaughter laws that will actually jail negligent employers.” The inquest returned an open verdict.

Hey Stop Enforcing

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: “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 forthcoming guidance on directors’ responsibilities for health and safety prepared by IoD, HSE with the IoD is reaching out to boards and directors to secure their commitment to ensure successful health and safety performance.

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 added: “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 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 (Hazards 95).

HSE’s claim that its strategy is working was dealt a serious blow in March when it was revealed there had been a dramatic increase in workplace fatalities.

Hazards website