Kyna Bowers discusses health and safety regulation and the lack of connection with the individual worker- at what cost?


   

Rules on health and safety in the UK are currently in a state of flux. Clashes of interest between state and worker are arising with increasing frequency and the legislation in place purporting to protect the individual is becoming tinged with political undertones. Many believe that the aims of previous legislation, such as boosting business through promotion of confidence and improved productivity, have been overshadowed by a surge in “compensation culture”, relentless risk assessment and bureaucracy, and disproportionate employer duties. Clearly, some kind of balance is essential to a successful working culture and consequently a successful country, and in recent years the government has adopted a new approach to its regulation. But, has the government gone too far over the last 6 years? Has the focus of our legislation shifted from protecting the individual to protecting business, and the state itself - at the cost of our workforce?

 


A need for change? 


      

Between 2010 and 2015 many policy papers were published on the topic of health and safety reform. They criticised the existing rule structure, which was deemed over-complicated and incomprehensible, the rise of a damaging compensation culture, and the problem of debilitating litigation costs on both the claimant and business. Great emphasis was put on the goal of removing the fear of being sued, and to discourage fraudulent or exaggerated claims. These problems, of course, are not to be sniffed at. We have all seen the adverts, and received the spam phone calls of glassy female voices asking “have you had an accident at work which wasn’t your fault?” It’s difficult to know the point at which our own duties of natural common sense come into conflict with employer negligence and hazardous conditions.

 

On this note, David Cameron issued a request for an extensive review. This was to be conducted by Lord Young, concerning the operation of health and safety laws and the growth of compensation culture. A report entitled “Common Sense, Common Safety” [1] was published in 2010. In the preamble, the Prime Minister claimed that “good, straightforward legislation...has been extended inappropriately to cover every walk of life, no matter how low risk”, and that businesses are “drowned in red tape, confusion and the fear of being sued for even minor incidents”.

He criticised the ability of people to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own actions, and the “unnecessary bureaucracy that drains creativity and innovation from our businesses”. Throughout the report, Lord Young’s findings are centred on the need to free business from the claws of the legislation, and reduce the remit of the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, which was founded on the basis of duty of care and risk assessment.

 

In the years following the publication of the report, the government has exempted thousands of businesses from health and safety inspections by pigeon-holing them into one of three categories:

 

 

1. Those sectors which present comparatively higher risk and where proactive inspection remains necessary as part of the overall regulatory approach.

 2. Those sectors where there remains comparatively higher risk but proactive inspection is not considered a useful component of future interventions.

3. Those areas where proactive inspection is not justified [2].

 

 


What do these changes mean?


 

The results of this are that checks are no longer routinely carried out on premises considered low risk. The government has since done away with half of the health and safety regulations previously in place, and instructed that businesses are only to be held liable for civil damages when found to be negligent (previously the law stated that employers could be liable even if they had taken sensible steps to prevent injury). On the face of it, these reforms may seem a logical step towards breaking our nation’s compensation habit.

 

However, it is impossible to overlook certain words that arise in Lord Young’s report. The eye is drawn to the words such as “trivial”, “overzealous”, and repeatedly “business”. What is notable is its distinct lack of connection with the individual, the worker - the very subject that our legislation should be aiming to protect.

There are fierce claims that this extensive cut to safety policy has in fact put people at risk. The late Bob Crow, trade union leader and General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers called the reform an “all-out attack on safety...with lethal consequences for workers and the public alike as businesses are given the green light to cut corners”[3]. His point stands true if we consider this: can we really rely on businesses themselves to protect the interest of the worker where said protection may be costly and time consuming? Should the health of our workforce ever be dismissed as “trivial”?

 

David Cameron was quoted in 2012 as saying that his New Year’s resolution would be to “kill off the health and safety culture for good", as it had become “an albatross around the neck of British business”, and encouraged “pointless time wasting”. The comments were branded “appalling and unhelpful” by Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. Again we see a political and distinctly capitalist outlook broadcasted to the public, and one which seems to overlook the necessity of said culture in providing support for those who need it. Many would agree that protecting workers saves businesses money, as work related accidents and follow-up medical care costs businesses nearly £8 billion a year through absenteeism, low productivity and legal bills. It also seems impracticable to divide businesses into “high risk” and “low risk”, as many “low risk” jobs have high risks of long-term illness and stress as opposed to accidents themselves.

 


Recent progress?


 

In 2016, a strategy document named “Helping Britain Work Well” [4] was issued by the Health and Safety Executive, following the encouragement of an active conversation between leading industry figures and key influencers on the future plans for our national health and safety system. Although it seemed to have good intentions, it was widely criticised for lack of any concrete proposals or targets. Hazards Magazine posed 6 questions to the HSE over twitter following the publication:

 

○      What are you doing to prevent victimisation of safety whistleblowers?

○      Will HSE stop arguing against more and better chemical exposure standards?

○      What will HSE do to protect groups of vulnerable or neglected workers?

○      Why is there no real strategy to reduce exposures to carcinogens?

○      Will HSE say boo to the government, and slam safety deregulation?

○      Will HSE stop playing down the costs and consequences of poor safety? [5]

   

 

Hazard Magazine found HSE unable to answer a single one of these questions. Has the HSE given up its regulatory independence at the cost of employee safety?

 

These questions are likely to become all the more prominent as our government continues to minimise time and money spent on health and safety. Attempts at creating a balance of values seem to be falling short, with extensive cuts on staff and resources having inevitable effect on workers’ safety. Of course, a compensation culture such as the one running rampage in the United States, is unfavourable and detrimental to growth - this cannot be denied. But we must question whether our framework and guidelines has been overly compressed into one that may, as Bob Crow stated, have “lethal consequences”.

 

Author: Kyna Bowers,

Guest Blogger.

 


References 


[1] A full copy of which is available here; https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/60905/402906_CommonSense_acc.pdf

[2] http://www.hse.gov.uk/lau/pdfs/reduced-proactive-inspections.pdf

[3]Health and safety inspections cut in regulation curb”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-19540318

[4] See full document here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/strategy/strategy-document.htm

[5] See article “How it became unsafe to leave policy to the safety regulator”, http://www.hazards.org/votetodie/alltalk.htm