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The government and its business bankers treat your survival as a joke
The government says workplace safety laws hold back the economy. Ministers complain safety enforcement is a diversion business could and should do without. But, Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says, while this is lapped up greedily by the business lobby and the tabloids, there’s just one problem. It’s a cynical - and ultimately deadly - lie.

Dark hearts
Hazards issue 118, April-June 2012


It worked a treat. ‘BUSINESSES will quit the UK, leading to widespread job losses, unless crazy health and safety rules are scrapped, a minister will warn today,’ The Sun proclaimed, a day ahead of local government elections. ‘British jobs will disappear overseas unless taxes are lower and more health and safety laws are swept away, Chris Grayling will say today,’ The Telegraph reported. And The Express headline barked: ‘’ELF AND SAFETY LAWS AXED TO SAVE OUR JOBS.’

Employment minister Chris Grayling triggered the headlines, declaring at a seminar organised by The Enterprise Forum in London on 2 May 2012, ‘unneeded’ workplace safety regulations are a barrier to economic growth. “That's why we are cutting health and safety bureaucracy. We're making good progress and I am determined to cut the number of health and safety regulations in half,” he said.

The minister was outlining to top businesses the government’s plans. They stump up an annual Forum membership fee of over £2,500 for their access to top Tories at the “independent, not-for-profit organisation founded in 1997 to facilitate discussions on policy between the business community and the Conservative Party.”

Grayling told them: “Of course we have to protect people against death and serious injury in the workplace and we won't do anything to risk this but if we stifle their employers with unneeded rules and regulations those people won't have a job in the first place.” And his speech hit the spot. Alexander Ehmann, head of regulation policy at the Institute of Directors, said: “This is a good start, which will help business to grow and create jobs.”

But workplace safety advocates warn that far from being a ‘good start’, the government’s policy will mean a bad end for more workers. It is a viewpoint the minister has shown little interest in hearing. Grayling has refused repeated requests for a meeting from bereaved relatives group Families Against Corporate Killers (Hazards 117).

FACK co-ordinator Hilda Palmer rubbished Mr Grayling's comments as “ideological claptrap” based “on no evidence whatsoever.” She refuted government claims about safety regulation being a job killer, pointing out that good safety enforcement makes business sense. Each 'accident' death at work costs over £1 million. Each occupational cancer death - and TUC estimates there are over 15,000 each year - comes at a cost to society of over £2.5m.

She said: “Too many regulations don't kill people, too little regulations do and the government is failing to protect workers from serious safety risks.”


It’s no accident

If Grayling’s not interested in the views of the relatives, he’s keenly interested in public relations. The former PR man with top industry lobbyists and union-busting specialists Burson-Marsteller – he was director in “Employee communications practice” then European Marketing Director in the 1990s when it spearheaded a continent-wide campaign against action on passive smoking – turned to the tabloids on health and safety in a strategy to revive the Conservative Party’s electoral fortunes.

This followed an internal directive from Downing Street, after a much criticised 21 March 2012 Budget and ahead of the expected and subsequently delivered drubbing in the 3 May 2012 local government elections, to try and spin the government out of trouble. Headlines ridiculing workplace safety rules, some taken up by ministers to justify the government’s deregulatory plans, were the first to emerge from the Tory HQ’s spin machine.  

On 10 April 2012 Grayling bayed his disapproval in the Daily Mail about a legal requirement for regular breaks for hairdressers and a ban on high-heeled shoes for salon staff the paper claimed was being lined up in a health and safety directive “being drawn up in Brussels”. Responding to the story, ‘High heels to be cut down to size under new EU proposals forcing hairdressers to wear non-slip flat shoes’, the minister told the Daily Mail: “We should be creating jobs, not killing them. This kind of stupidity has to stop. It makes no sense and I will do everything I can to stop it.”

On 11 April, the Daily Mail followed up with another safety bashing headline: ‘Fightback against the daft 'elf and safety rules as myth busting panels brought in.’ This time, Grayling blamed “jobsworths” for “daft health and safety decisions.”

Quick off the mark, on 12 April, the Daily Mail made its own referral to the brand new panel, about a fire brigade refusal to rescue a seagull on alleged safety grounds. In the morning it ran the headline: ‘Elf 'n' safety bird brains! 25 firemen who scrambled to rescue a seagull from a 3ft-deep pond refused to wade in because of regulations - leaving it to Joe Public to save the bird.’ Before the day was out, the paper manufactured its own safety-bashing follow-up: ‘The Mail contacted the new health and safety Myth Buster panel and were told... Give us five days and we'll say if the firemen did the right thing.’

The Myth Busters Challenge Panel, created by a sceptical Health and Safety Executive (HSE) at Grayling’s instruction, had quickly become a self-perpetuating headline generator. The fact the seagull story had no safety connection at all, something pointed out by the fire brigade and HSE, went unmentioned in the coverage.

Encouraged by a series of headlines Conservative Central Office knew would play well in the its true blue, blue rinsed and blue stockinged heartlands, Grayling was intent on keeping the safety spin machine spinning. He had intended to use a jibe on the Euro “stupidity” on hairdressing in an 18 April speech to the Policy Exchange, but pulled the reference at the last minute after the TUC pointed out there were no plans for either a Euro hairdressing directive or a ban on high heels. The story was lifted unchallenged by the Daily Mail from a scaremongering news release from a hairdressing industry trade group and went unqueried by the minister. [See below: Bird-brained policy and hair-raising lies]

TUC’s Hugh Robertson said it took less than five minutes to establish the press reports were “rubbish”. He added “you would have thought that, as health and safety minister, he would have known what legislation was currently being considered by the European Commission, so either he has not got a clue what is going on in his own area, or he know that this story was just made up by the tabloid press yet decided to run with it anyway.”



Bird-brained policy and hair-raising lies

It was bad news for workers when beleaguered ministers, facing a backlash from the electorate and dissent in their own ranks, decided a public attack on workplace safety would be a handy diversion. A quick-fire sequence of safety-bashing headlines emerged in April and spilled over into May 2012 as part of a Downing Street devised ruse to spin the Tories out of their slump.

If you want facts or even truth served along with your news, you’d have been left disappointed. When the Daily Mail condemned the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) after its Myth Busters Challenge Panel “failed to come to a decision on the seagull in the pond case” – the bird was stuck in a park pond - it neglected to say the bird’s plight “was not about health and safety at all,” said HSE chair Judith Hackitt. A London Fire Brigade (LFB) spokesperson confirmed: “This clearly wasn’t an emergency so the firefighters left it to a local animal rescue charity to deal with and swiftly left the scene.”

Facts also took a backseat in the Daily Mail’s 10 April 2012 exclusive about a supposed ban on high heels for hairdressers “under nanny state proposals being drawn up in Brussels.” The story was quickly kicked into touch by the TUC when it revealed employment minister Chris Grayling planned to use this as ill-founded ‘evidence’ to ridicule health and safety in an 18 April 2012 speech to the Policy Exchange.

Mr Grayling was intending to say: “It baffles me that at a time when we face a huge jobs challenge across Europe, that someone thinks it is sensible for the EU to be spending time legislating to ban high-heeled shoes in a hairdressers.” The minister opted to remove the contentious sentence after a pre-emptive criticism from TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson was posted on TUC’s Stronger Unions blog an hour before the minister was set to deliver the speech, and which revealed the European Commission has no intention to do anything of the kind.

Organisations from Europe-wide employers’ group Coiffure EU and trade union group UNI Europa Hair & Beauty had worked together and produced a 26 April 2012 voluntary agreement on good health and safety approaches in hairdressing. Despite the minister’s attempt to put the boot in, a ban on high heels was nowhere to be seen. The entire story had been concocted by the National Hairdressers’ Federation and had gone unchallenged by the Daily Mail and unqueried by the safety minister.

TUC’s Hugh Robertson said it took less than five minutes to establish the press reports were “rubbish”. He added “you would have thought that, as health and safety minister, he would have known what legislation was currently being considered by the European Commission, so either he has not got a clue what is going on in his own area, or he know that this story was just made up by the tabloid press yet decided to run with it anyway.”

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Dark hearts

Laws are being axed. Inspections may soon be history. But the government assault on safety at work is not evidence based. It’s just a cauldron of lies cooked up by business and ministers, more interested in tabloid headlines than your head on the line.


See below: Bird-brained policy and hair-raising lies


The dirty dozen ways the government is killing you

1 Enforcement  Slashed inspections by a third; imposed a 35 per cent cut on the Health and Safety Executive’s budget by 2015.

2 Neglect  Removed most firms from preventive inspections entirely.

3 Regulation  Embarked on a drive to ‘slash or improve’ 84 per cent of health and safety legislation.

4 Sunsetting  Announced a regulatory reform bill, which will strip employment regulation and includes additional attacks on inspections and introduces ‘sunset clauses’ to scrap regulations.

5 Consultation  Set up unaccountable business-skewed policy consultations including the Red Tape Challenge and Focus on Enforcement to provide a rubber stamp for its attack on safety.

6 Bias  Conducted one-on-one meetings with the business and insurance lobby to get their directions on safety and compensation policy.

7 Exclusion  Refused to meet bereaved relatives, to hear the human and economic case for better safety regulation and enforcement.

8 Insecurity  Undermined employment law, increasing insecurity at work and making it difficult for workers to complain about safety abuses or get justice via employment tribunals if victimised for raising safety concerns.

9 Evidence  Ignored conclusive research showing comprehensive inspection and enforcement regimes are the best way to underpin decent safety standards at work, with lasting job creation and safety pay-offs.

10 Benefits  Dismissed evidence showing properly regulated and enforced safety standards lead to a massive saving to the public purse, a net and lasting saving to business and a dramatic decline in work-
related injuries and ill-health.

11 Spin  Encouraged a false public perception of safety as a ‘burden on business’ and a ‘job killer’, when it is good for business and a job creator.

12 Politicking  Attacked workplace safety in an attempt to address its own electoral misfortunes, at the expense of workplace health and safety.

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