The union’s president Alan Grey said that when the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act gained royal assent 40 years ago, it furthered the standard developed during the industrial revolution that health and safety law is a necessary protection for workers.
The law also took the view that “those that create risk are best placed to manage it”.
He was moving a successful motion calling on the general council to campaign:
- for proper resourcing for the Health and Safety Executive
- to publicise the achievements of the 1974 Act, including the role played by health and safety representatives, and for effective rights for them at work sites not directly owned by their employer
- for all workplaces to be subject to regular inspection
- for the next elected government to review changes to the 1974 Act made since 2010.
Inclusive, flexible law
Grey said the 1974 legislation recognised the diversity of those creating risk. It targeted employers, manufacturers, suppliers and the self-employed to prevent work-related harm.
It reflected an understanding that duty-holders range from individuals and micro businesses to large organisations and conglomerates. Prescriptive law was ditched in favour of flexibility and duties were expressed in principles and goals to ensure proportionality.
“It is this inclusive, flexible approach that has meant the Health and Safety at Work Act has stood the test of time. Perpetual coalition government-commissioned reviews have said the law, and the HSE, are fit for purpose.”
The same common sense approach was applied to enforcement, which became targeted and risk-based. Inspectors had the discretion to assess the responsiveness of a duty-holder and seek to secure compliance using commensurate regulation, ranging from advice to prosecution, with regard to public attitudes.
The HSE’s approach had long been deemed sensible and secured the regulator’s international reputation – evidence showed that organisations with a strong health and safety culture typically perform better.
Coalition ignores evidence
“Despite this, the coalition government has been relentless in its pursuit of health and safety deregulation. It claims health and safety is a ‘burden on business’ and has made it a symbol of everything that supposedly constrains entrepreneurism,” said Grey.
There was no evidence to back this assertion, yet the government had:
- cut state funding for HSE by over 40%
- dramatically cut inspections
- cut support and guidance for employers and safety reps and ditched valuable codes of practice
- cut reporting requirements and the vital sources of intelligence for smart targeting by HSE
- made access to compensation much harder for injured workers.
UK businesses alone incur costs of over £3bn for accidents and ill-health, he said, while the overall cost has been estimated to be a staggering £20bn a year.
Yet the number of staff employed in HSE fell from 3,702 in April 2010 to just 2,769 in December 2013.
Halt HSE attacks
“We urgently need to reverse this trend and halt the perpetual attacks on HSE. We must campaign to highlight the damage being done by this coalition government and demand that an incoming government next May gives health and safety in the workplace the priority it deserves and HSE the resources it needs to deliver,” he concluded.
Grey drew attention to the TUC’s publication Toxic, corrosive and hazardous: the government’s record on health and safety and Prospect’s own tribute to the Act – 40@40
– a selection of stories from the inspectors whose voices are rarely heard yet are envied around the globe for their professionalism, regulatory intelligence and discretion.
“These stories serve as a salutary reminder of the potentially devastating impact when things go wrong but also the business benefits when things go right.
“Let’s take the opportunity of the forthcoming election to drive that campaign forward so that HSE and the Health and Safety at Work Act can prosper for the next 40 years and our successors at the 2054 congress can celebrate its 80th birthday,” he concluded.