A financial crisis is engulfing the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the government agency charged with ensuring that employers abide by health and safety regulations.
All recruitment has been frozen, training has been slashed and now offices are closing. The agency is also planning a 5 percent budget cut each year for the next three years. Last week the HSE announced the closure of its London headquarters, with up to 350 staff told to move to Bootle in Merseyside.
If this plan is not reversed the majority of workers will simply leave the agency – taking a huge amount of expertise with them. The HSE has lost some 17 percent of its staff since 2002.
Two of the HSE’s four Scottish offices are also earmarked for closure, with others also under threat.
Nobody should underestimate how important the HSE’s work is. Roughly 11 times as many people are killed at work or as a result of their work each year than die through murder or manslaugher.
Some 18,000 violent crimes require hospital treatment each year, as compared to 39,000 major injuries that occur in the workplace.
Despite this, the entire HSE receives the same level of funding as the Avon & Somerset police authority. There are more traffic wardens in London than frontline inspectors in the whole of the HSE’s field operations division.
Nor is it the case that there are less accidents at work these days. In some sectors it is quite the reverse – there was a 25 percent increase in the number of fatalities of workers on construction sites in the 12 months to April this year.
Any hope of justice for the victims of such tragedies is also rapidly falling.
The number of notices served on employers by HSE inspectors dropped by 44 percent in the year to April 2006 – and the number of prosecutions also dropped by 44 percent.
Around 85 percent of accidents reported to the HSE are never investigated and just as many never get reported at all. Employers are able to get away with this because the 400 frontline inspectors can only stretch so far – and numbers are planned to drop to 360 by next April.
Very few cases of occupational disease are ever investigated. In the early 1990s the HSE employed 50 occupational physicians and 60 specialist nurses. Now there are just seven physicians and 25 nurses.
Managers can now ignore major injuries, including scalpings, as they do not merit a “mandatory” investigation. Many accidents are not investigated even if they are on the “mandatory” list.
No wonder that workplaces will get an inspection very rarely – on average, once every 13 years. Some 39 percent of businesses have never been inspected by the the HSE.
The “modern” strategy of publicity drives rather than enforcements used to justify the cuts. The government argues that industry does not need compulsion to take health and safety seriously.
The “modern” role of the the HSE is to find “innovative” ways to get health and safety messages across. So huge resources have gone into advertising campaigns, websites and so on.
A genuine attempt to get the HSE’s frontline resources to bear down on the big killers and causes of ill-health would be very welcome.
But the emphasis is on providing advice and guidance rather than on enforcement. Expertise in non-priority issues such as machinery or crane safety is draining away.
All the evidence shows that the fear of being caught and punished concentrates the minds of employers far more than leaflets or radio adverts.
The Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher tried to close down the HSE three times. She failed, but Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown are getting close to realising her aim.
It is time for the TUC to launch a campaign of concerted action across the unions to reverse the cuts in the HSE’s funding – and to reassert the need to bring employers to book for failing to look after their employees’ health and safety.