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       Hazards special online report, March 2015
Are safety regulations being quietly undermined and privatised?
There’s nothing wrong with setting and upholding good workplace standards. But, warns TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, standard-setting bodies could be developing a healthy income line without delivering any guarantee of safety.

It is impossible to get away from standards in the workplace. There are British standards on everything from the “Transliteration of Cyrillic and Greek Letters” (BS2979) to the “preparation of a liquor of tea for use in sensory test” (BS6008).

Many underpin health and safety standards. Almost all personal protective equipment (PPE) has a European (CE) standard, as does most machinery. Standards are not only about the production of goods, they are also about processes such as quality, environmental management and corporate responsibility.

Workplace safety is already in the mix. The British Standards Institution (BSI) has an occupational health and safety management standard, OHSAS 18001. There are plans to replace this with a global ISO 45001 standard, a draft of which is so lacking it could amount to a great leap backwards (Hazards 128).

Standard bodies

So how do these standards come about and what is their status? In Britain we have BSI. This is a non-profit making body formed over a hundred years ago to set engineering standards. It sets standards for Britain and represents the UK on the two main international standard-setting bodies, the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and its European equivalent, CEN.


TUC says simple steps could improve the standards system.
   All standards with a health and safety component should be available free. Standards and technical committees should always have appropriate membership by representatives of consumer groups, unions or other parties. Manufacturers, consultants and others with a strong financial interest should always be in a minority. The standard making process should be overhauled and simplified.
   The UK government should fund and support union involvement in standard setting. BSI and ISO should not be involved in developing standards in areas that are the territory of regulators, for example HSE, or representative international bodies like ILO. That includes health and safety management systems.

However BSI not only sets standards, it certifies standards. Companies can pay to be audited by BSI to demonstrate they meet a national or international standard. BSI charges for this; it operates in 150 countries. In 2014, it made almost £200 million from certification work. When standards bodies are looking at developing standards they will also have at the front of their mind the lucrative business of certification.

What is the status of standards? That depends on the standard. Many are voluntary, however a lot of European standards, especially in health and safety, have a special legal status. One example is machinery. Any machinery imported into the EU must comply with the standards set by CEN and must be “kite-marked”. The same applies to PPE.

These are called “Transposed harmonised standards”. That means that all machinery or PPE must have the CE kitemark. Other standards are a requirement for procurement contracts. The status and use of international standards is likely to grow as new international trade agreements are developed.


Unsafe developments

BSI is looking at developing standards in new areas, such as personnel management. It has a committee exploring the potential to establish standards across the practice of human resources (HR) in the UK and possibly globally.

BSI is already trying to develop a new standard for measuring the value of staff to an organisation and has just published a standard on how to privatise - or ‘outsource’ in BSI parlance - functions. The fact that the chair of that standards committee on outsourcing was a consultant who is a board member of the UK National Outsourcing Association, and the committee includes several consultants and privatising companies, speaks volumes about the process.

The only way you can check whether a piece of machinery or equipment meets a standard, and whether that is the appropriate standard, is to know what the standard says. But, while all regulations and laws are available free on the internet, standards are not.


Product specification standards - the more traditional standards and include PPE, machinery, and electrical products.

Business process standards
- more recent and cover issues such as quality management, environmental management and IT services management.

Business potential standards - very new and deal with organisational or individual behaviour and include Corporate Social Responsibility.

Buying a standard can cost hundreds of pounds. The standard on crane safety will cost you £204, as will the standard on road traffic safety management systems. There is no way that a union workplace representative can have access to them, yet employers often respond to safety concerns by simply telling the representative that they comply with the British or European standard.

That said, if developed properly, appropriately and with proper oversight and involvement by unions and employers, standards could be useful, but that could only happen if there was a major sea-change in how they are developed and used.

Is a CE mark a guarantee of safety? Absolutely not. Firstly, remember that a European standard is decided by the standards bodies, not the EU, and may not be at a level that British unions would want. One example is a standard for wheelie bins, where the wheels were too small to allow them to be lifted safely up UK pavements.

  Standards can be a law unto themselves. A European standard for wheelie bins required a wheel size that couldn’t get up UK kerbs. And some imported high visibility clothing, safety gloves and hard hats sold in the UK last year had all the right kite marks, but were unsafe fakes.

Even if the standards are safe, no-one enforces them. Research from the British Safety Industry Federation has shown that in some industries, over half of imported PPE is actually fake and, although CE marked, does not meet the standard. Fake hi-viz clothing and protective gloves were a particular problem.

Even machinery imported from within Europe has frequently been found to fall short of standards, despite having a CE mark. Where injury has resulted, prosecutions of manufacturers in another country are almost non-existent. In the past five years there have been two prosecutions under the Supply of Machinery Regulations, both of UK companies.


Falling standards

Setting standards is not the same as raising standards. The draft standard on managing health and safety being developed by ISO is far inferior to the HSE’s standard (HSG65), or that developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO).

However, because companies will be able to get a certificate from BSI saying that they comply with the ISO standard it is highly likely that employers will seek to use that, rather than the superior HSE or ILO standards. These both have worker involvement and the hierarchy of control at their core; the ISO draft standard does not.

DANGEROUS SIGN  Many standards create an illusion of safety, but may make matters worse. The draft international occupational health and safety management standard, for example, doesn’t require firms to let workers have a say.

One illustration of the market-driven nature of standards setting is that ISO decided to develop the standard on health and safety management despite opposition from both employers’ bodies and unions at international level (Hazards 128).

What we are now seeing is that European and international standards are becoming an alternative to regulation. The European Commission and the British government are both becoming more reliant on compliance with standards rather than compliance with laws. That can be bad news for workers as they often have no voice in the development of standards. By contrast, they can feed into consultations on new HSE regulations and ILO conventions, recommendations and other initiatives.

While unions are told that they can participate in all the standards committees (and are sometimes even encouraged to do so), there are over 1,200 such committees and over 7,000 projects live right now.

There is no way that unions can be involved in all of them, and so have to prioritise. As a result only about 20-30 standards have any kind of workers’ voice and even then it is only one voice out of perhaps a couple of dozen. Most of the rest will be manufacturers who have their own commercial interest at heart.

This should not be the case. European legislation states that the British government should take measures to enable the social partners to have an influence at national level on the process of preparing and monitoring machinery standards, for example. They have never done so, despite repeated requests.

At European level, The European Commission has recently taken steps to help the European trade union movement to have some input into standards work, but even that is very limited.

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Standard deviation

There’s nothing wrong with setting and upholding good workplace standards. But, warns TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson, standard-setting bodies could be developing a healthy income line without delivering any guarantee of safety.

Standard bodies
Unsafe developments
Falling standards
Also see
Brutish Standards: Unaccountable standards bodies bid to privatise safety laws

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