Why do we need health and safety?
Because employers have control over how we work, the law says that they are responsible for ensuring that the workplace is safe. They have to protect the health, safety and welfare of their employees and any members of the public who might be affected by what they do.
Despite this, at least 20,000 people die prematurely every year because of occupational injury or disease, while another 1,200,000 people currently in work say they suffered from ill-health that they thought was work-related. Many of them continue to come to work, despite their illness, while others are on long-term sick-leave. In addition there are another million people who have since left work and who say that they have ill-health as a result of their work. These people are still suffering the ill-effects of work after they retired or left.
The illnesses and injuries caused by work are all preventable if employers take the right precautions and protect their workers.
Who enforces health and safety?
The law is enforced by local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSE inspects many of the very high hazard workplaces like chemical plants, most factories, mines, nuclear plants, oil rigs, and also local authorities, the NHS, colleges, construction and agriculture. Most shops, offices, and some other services are inspected by local authorities. The HSE covers 884,000 premises. Local authorities cover 1,108,000 premises. Railways and the Maritime sectors have their own regulators.
What cuts are expected?
The government announced its spending plans on 20th October. It said that it would be cutting its contribution to the HSE by 35% over the next four years, while at the same time looking at increased charging. In addition local government is to have its budget cut by 28% on top of a three year freeze on expenditure.
Local authorities will also have more flexibility in deciding what areas should be cut. Councils have a lot of competing priorities and elected officials will usually try to protect those that their electorate raise with them most often, such as education, housing and, anti-social behaviour. Because health and safety only becomes an issue when things go wrong, most councillors do not see it as a problem, so are less likely to fight to retain the current level of inspection and enforcement.
What effect will this have?
The HSE now employs around 3,200 people. This is about 25% less than the number of employees it had 15 years ago. If it was to lose more staff it would have an enormous effect on the way the organisation functions.
Previous cuts have led to a big fall in both the number of inspections and prosecutions. In 1999/2000 the number of inspections made by HSE Field Operations Division inspectors was 75,272. In 2008/09 the number of recorded inspections was 23,004. This is a fall of 69.5 per cent in 10 years.
The low number of inspections has had an effect on the level of enforcement activity. The number of prosecutions has fallen from 1,986 in 2001/2 to 1,090 in 2008/09. There has been a similar fall in local authority enforcement. The number of improvement notices and prohibition notices has also fallen dramatically.
Further cuts could lead to a similar fall. We need inspectors to be visiting workplaces to ensure that employers are obeying the law and to support those that need help. Nearly 90 per cent of all employers who have had contact with the HSE have seen it as a ‘helpful’ organisation.
There is also a clear link between prosecution activity and preventing injury and ill-health. If employers know that there is very little chance of them being inspected, they will see little reason to make sure they are complying with the regulations on health and safety.
If you cut the amount of money for health and safety people will die as a result. Many more will be made ill or injured.
Could the HSE not make other savings instead?
Inspectors need offices to work out of, admin support, their wages paid, access to advice. They are not areas you can simply get rid off.
However, although inspections and enforcement is important, employers also need information, advice and guidance. The HSE provides a free information line which employers can ring up to ask for advice or information. They also have an excellent website that is the first place that most employers go for health and safety information. HSE guidance is very highly regarded and sets out the clear practical steps that employers have to take to make the workplace safer. If you did not have this advice it would make it much more difficult for employers to get proper guidance or advice. They would have the choice of paying a consultant to give them advice, or doing nothing.
The HSE runs a laboratory which is crucial in researching what is effective in health and safety and publishing advice. It also has an important role in finding out what caused major incidents such as the explosion in a petrochemical tank in Buncefield, or in Stockline, a Glasgow factory where 9 people were killed.
The HSE also runs campaigns. Recent ones have included one in agriculture (one of the most dangerous industries in the country) and another on asbestos. Both were very successful and won national awards. More importantly they made the workplace safer. 76% of maintenance workers who heard the asbestos campaign said they would now take precautions to prevent coming in contact with asbestos.
The government has already announced a temporary halt on publicity campaigns. Cuts in the HSE budget could make that permanent.
We need a mixture of information, advice, guidance, inspection and enforcement.
How much does the HSE cost?
Public funding for the HSE last year was just under £240m. However the cost to the economy of injury and illness that work causes is far more than that. Because work is responsible for 30 millions days sickness absence last year, the direct cost to employers was £3.7bn. In addition insurers paid out £1.5bn in compensation to those made ill or injured through work, while the government paid out a further £800m in industrial injuries benefit.
The direct cost to employers’ insurers and the government is therefore £6bn. That, however, excludes the cost to the NHS and social services of caring for those people, as well as the cost of other benefits paid out to those who have to leave work as a result of their illness. Most importantly it excludes the cost to the worker, and their family.
Every pound that is cut from prevention will mean additional costs to employers, the government, and, most importantly, those workers who will end up injured as a result.
Hasn’t health and safety got too bad a name nowadays?
This view of health and safety has been fed by the numerous stories in the media ridiculing ‘elf and safety gone mad’. Some of these stories have an element of truth, others are distortions, while a few are just downright lies. Most relate to public safety, such as village fetes, playgrounds or the activities of local councils. Very few are anything to do with health and safety in the workplace.
Stories like these, which range from schools stopping children from playing conkers to restaurants removing toothpicks in case a customer injures themselves, are run by the media as a form of entertainment.
In 2006 the TUC looked at a number of these stories that were making the rounds in the press, such as that ladders were being banned, safety signs were required for mountains, and acrobats had to wear hard hats. These stories were complete fabrications, but this does not mean that every health and safety story we read about is made up. There are people who believe that they need to protect people’s safety through over-elaborate risk assessments or regulations, but that is not because of the law – simply a lack of understanding. In other cases employers have used health and safety as an excuse for not doing something which they did not want to do anyway, or as an excuse for saving money.
The long-term effect of these myths being circulated is that the ‘brand’ of health and safety gets diminished. People see ‘health and safety’ as stupid rules and barriers, rather than as a framework for protecting those most vulnerable in society. This has a knock-on effect in the workplace where health and safety is seen as less of a priority. It also affects government policy. Politicians read the newspaper headlines, rather than the obituaries.
It is important that politicians are told, by those who depend on the protection that the HSE and local authorities help provide, that safety is not something which can be discarded. Workers need protection from employers just as much today as we ever have.
The TUC has produced a guide to lobbying your MP. This is available here