Health and Safety Executive cuts will result in more deaths and serious accidents
Prospect members in the Health and Safety Executive say proposals to help the safety watchdog meet targeted cuts to its budget will prevent it regulating certain industries effectively: resulting in more deaths and serious accidents in the workplace.
On behalf of 1,650 inspectors and other specialists in HSE, Prospect has warned that the two-pronged attack facing HSE – swingeing efficiency targets of 35 per cent per year coupled with further unknown measures packaged as the government's assault on red tape – will see a drastic reduction in proactive workplace inspections.
Proactive inspections are those that occur before a safety incident and therefore prevent accidents: reactive inspections occur after an incident and ensure that employers are held to account for their actions. The balance between the two types of inspection is a matter of professional judgment, guided by direction from the HSE board, consisting of representatives of business and unions.
Prospect has argued for many years that there is a clear correlation between inspection and improvements in health and safety performance. Employers agree with this.
But despite the evidence, inspectors faced an immense challenge even before the spending cuts were announced - the average small or medium sized business is more likely to cease trading after six years than be visited by an HSE inspector, on average once every 14 years.
Members were already sceptical that the cost-cutting target of 35 per cent - far in excess of the average cut across the public sector - could be achieved solely through co-location of offices and a reduction of 600 back office posts over three years.
Despite a ministerial commitment to maintain frontline services, HSE has already been instructed to withdraw from proactive inspections in sectors such as electricity generation and quarries.
Even if frontline posts are not affected, members warned that there would be a knock-on effect on proactive inspection. In areas of high industrial activity, inspectors are already so pushed by the rate of major accidents that proactive work is limited.
Inspectors would be further restricted by requirements to take on more clerical work, thanks to back office cuts, coupled with the need for prinicipal inspectors to spend more time managing staff working remotely as a result of the programme of office closures.
However, the launch of a new strategy for health and safety in March, Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone, demolished the myth that proactive inspection would not become a direct casualty. It contained:
- plans to reduce HSE inspections by a third
- new fees for employers where HSE finds fault
- a reduction in proactive regulation
- other wide-ranging changes to HSE operations, including a departure from face-to-face contact in favour of web-based initiatives.
The strategy means proactive inspections will now be abandoned in most workplaces outside the nuclear, chemical and offshore sectors. Other industries will be placed in one of three bands:
- high risk where proactive inspections will be retained, including construction, chemical, waste and recycling and high risk manufacturing
- areas of concern but where proactive inspection is not proposed (agriculture, quarries and health and social care)
- low risk requiring no inspection, covering manufacturing areas such as textiles, clothing, footwear, light and electrical engineering; the transport sector including air, road haulage and docks; and electricity generation.
Prospect described the strategy as perverse as it will result in inspections by the safety body only being triggered in large areas of the economy by a death or major accident, with targets designed to ratchet up prosecutions rather than prevent accidents and illness.
Workplaces, effectively deregulated by the moves, will become more dangerous. And the economic arguments do not stack up as prevention is cheaper and better for business, the taxpayer and employees rather than trying to put broken lives back together again.
The union will use all avenues available to call on the HSE Board and the government to rethink these plans.
March also saw the launch of a further review of health and safety regulation, to be chaired by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt. The review is due to make recommendations for simplifying the current rules by autumn 2011.
The government trumpeted the review as part of its drive to cut red tape but the union has described it as further evidence that health and safety is driven by the desire to save money rather than a professional assessment of what actions save lives.
Prospect has also highlighted how the cuts in proactive inspection will pre-empt the findings of Professor Löfstedt's review and asked: What happens if that concludes more inspection is needed not less?
Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone proposes a fee for fault mechanism whereby HSE can recover its costs from businesses that put their employees and the public at risk by flouting health and safety law.
The document claims that responsible businesses will benefit from a lighter touch regulatory regime and will not face cost recovery. However, the cost recovery principle will provide a deterrent to those who would otherwise fail to meet their obligations. In practice, this is not the case since without proactive inspection it is difficult to distinguish between businesses that are responsible and those who are irresponsible but have not had an accident that requires enforcement action.
It recommends HSE recover all of the costs of an inspection/investigation where there has been a serious breach in standards, along with the cost of any follow-up work to ensure the position is rectified.
The government also intends to allow HSE to cost-recover from business in relation to services it provides, which are a necessary part of the process of land development. It will recover its full costs for acting as a statutory consultee for land use planning applications and hazardous substance consents, as well as charging for the advice it provides on large projects at the request of developers.
Given that certain areas of industry already pay HSE for inspection and regulation needed to meet industry requirements – for example nuclear and offshore activity is fully funded by industry and assessing safety cases in hazardous industries is charged on a hourly rate basis, it sees the proposals as a logical conclusion.
However there has been no consultation with industry on whether charges should be linked to the level of proactive inspection designed to avoid accidents or about what charging mechanism best suits a sector: instead government has decided that its proposals suit all types of industry regardless of the level of risk
Others, however, question the wisdom of making a regulator's budget dependent on the discovery of faults as it could give rise to a conflict of interest among inspectors, who could be pressured to find fault if there is any internal link to targets.
There is also a risk that fees could be viewed with skepticism and primarily as a money-making exercise, with organisations disputing whether any risk has been created and questioning HSE's impartiality when companies are charged for faults it has found.
Prospect has called for more information on the proposals, not least clarification over how the level of fees will be set, before any consultation paper is drawn up, and greater involvement of industry in determining what type of charging is best designed to improve heath and safety.
In response to a government consultation on amending the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations, Prospect has said it can see no benefit in the proposals, which appear rooted in the misconception that health and safety is a burden to business.
The key change proposed is to extend the time before an occupational accident needs to be reported from over three days to over seven.
Prospect has said this will signal that absences of less than seven days are not important – which is at odds with the health agendas of other government departments, the recent sickness absence review and with employers' wishes to minimise sickness levels.
It will also diminish the ability of health and safety representatives to fulfil their statutory role and make a positive contribution which often sees a reduction in accidents of up to 50 per cent.
In addition the change will:
- result in the likely unintended consequence that accidents and ill health will increase as companies fail to understand accident or ill-health trends
- do little to reduce the administrative requirements on businesses, as meeting RIDDOR requirements is often part of a larger administrative set-up overseeing issues like statutory sick pay
- risk the loss of data to inform targeted risk reduction measures.