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Government health and safety strategy puts workers at risk

Posted in: Workplace Injuries 

Government policy to reduce the amount of red tape affecting businesses means that many employees are working in sectors unprotected by unannounced health and safety inspections. According to a new study, this is a development that has led to some deadly consequences.

Government’s approach

In March 2011, the Government outlined details of its new health and safety framework, entitled ‘Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone’, which was aimed at supporting the Government’s growth agenda and easing the regulatory burdens on business.

One of the measures under the new framework was to cut the amount of safety inspections in the UK by around a third. This is to be achieved by instructing HSE inspectors to concentrate on high risk locations and rogue employers who are risking the safety of their staff or the public. Employers out with these categories would no longer face automatic inspections. 

In September 2012, the Government went a step further by announcing that it intends to introduce binding new rules on both the Health & Safety Executive and on local authorities. These will exempt hundreds of thousands of businesses from ‘burdensome, regular health & safety inspections’.

Study into impact of policy

A recent study by Rory O’Neill, a Professor of Occupational Health Policy Research at Stirling University, has looked at the impact this reduction in inspections has had on worker safety.

Using information gained from Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reports and Freedom of Information requests, the study found that at least 37 employment sectors, which employ the majority of the workforce, are now exempt from unannounced HSE inspections. These include a number of known higher risk sectors such as agriculture.

The report also highlights the fact that the NHS is also exempt from unannounced safety inspections. This is despite the NHS being Britain’s biggest employer, and its employees facing a wide range of risks, including exposure to blood-borne diseases and dangerous drugs.

“Whether your job is making people better or making plastics, don’t expect a government safety inspector to call, the majority of workplace deaths now occur in sectors officially excused from unannounced inspections by the safety regulator.”

Study findings

Analysis carried out as part of the study revealed that, following the Government’s change in strategy, over half of workplace fatalities have occurred in sectors exempt from unannounced inspections. 

In the 19 month period from April 2011, there were 258 workplace deaths in workplaces covered by the HSE. Around 53% of these occurred in sectors exempt from unannounced inspections. Sectors still covered by unannounced inspections accounted for 40% of fatalities. The remainder were in sectors where the enforcement situation is not clear.

“The situation in Scotland — which experienced a sharp hike in workplace deaths last year — is considerably worse,” said Professor O’Neill. “From April 2011 to 31st October 2012, of 33 worker fatalities, 20 — a full 60% — were in un-inspected sectors. Policy changes imposed by Westminster could be having particularly deadly consequences for Scotland’s workforce.”

Fall in number of inspections after injury

According to Professor O’Neill, there has also been a sharp reduction in the number of inspections carried out by the HSE after injuries are reported. 

“You could be scalped, lose a limb or be blinded at work and HSE would not care to look. The situation could worsen as a result of Business Secretary Vince Cable’s plan to introduce a binding legal code outlawing proactive inspections by UK government regulators in all but high risk areas.” 

“The current government strategy is making life easier for irresponsible businesses, but risks making it just a bit shorter for the rest of us.”

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