Socialist Worker

Health and Safety Executive: toothless watchdog idles as workers die

by Simon Basketter
Issue No. 2062

Workers at the Health and Safety Executive protesting against job losses (Pic:

Workers at the Health and Safety Executive protesting against job losses (Pic: » Guy Smallman)

Shocking figures released last week by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) reveal that 77 workers died on construction sites between April 2006 and April 2007 – a massive 31 percent leap on the previous year.

Figures showed that the overall number of workplace fatalities was at a five-year high. Last year 241 people died, compared to 215 in the previous year.

The rise in deaths comes at a time when the HSE is cutting the number of its inspectors and reducing the number of inspections.

The HSE approach is to rely less on inspections and more on advice and support for employers.

Bad bosses

According to Alan Ritchie, general secretary of the building workers’ Ucatt union, “The latest figures are truly gut-wrenching. Last year far too many families experienced the tragedy of a loved one going to work and never returning home.

“The blame for many of these deaths needs to be placed at the doors of bad bosses, who will cut any corner to make ever larger profits.

“But equally the HSE has clearly failed in its duties to protect workers. The senior management of the HSE should consider their positions.”

The HSE has lost over 250 jobs since April 2006, and it faces a further 100 job losses in the remaining half of this financial year. The Treasury is demanding a further 15 percent budget cut by 2011 in order that the HSE meets “efficiency targets”.

Since 2002, the HSE has cut over 1,000 jobs as a result of government spending cuts, meaning that over 350 major injuries were not investigated last year due to the lack of trained inspectors.

The HSE’s guidance on the investigation of major injuries now excludes injuries such as the loss of fingertips from its list of those that require a formal investigation.

One inspector said, “The HSE is being hamstrung. The government is financially strangling it, and it isn’t able to carry out the work that it’s supposed to do. You could say that the HSE is a watchdog with its teeth filed down.”

Dozens of firms escape scot free after workplace accidents that badly injure or even kill staff, an internal HSE investigation has revealed.

The report found that some firms get just a verbal telling off, or are sent letters, when they should be hauled before courts.

Research into 126 of the hundreds of accidents investigated last year found inadequate rulings in 18 of them.

Among them were 12 cases – including a death, and seven major injuries – in which prosecution was “probably appropriate” but did not take place.

Instead, six of these dozen worst offenders received letters, four were spoken to, one got an improvement order, while in another case nothing was done at all.

Directors still off the hook

Company directors will not be held liable if corporate negligence has led to the death of a worker – despite a new law passed last week.

Labour came to power in 1997 promising new corporate manslaughter legislation that would make companies more responsible for the safety of the people who work for them.

For many years unions have campaigned to make individual directors who are negligent personally liable for workers’ deaths, but Gordon Brown’s government has ignored them. The new law maintains the provisions of previous legislation that mean that only a whole company can be sued.

The corporate manslaughter and corporate homicide act does create a new offence of corporate manslaughter in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and corporate homicide in Scotland.

The new act allows prosecutions where there is serious negligence by a company – and a “significant” part of that failure is at senior management level.

The government has heralded the fact that new legislation removes the requirement to find a “controlling mind” responsible for the negligence. But the new act demands that someone in senior management is proved guilty of “gross negligence”.

Even if a prosecution is successful, it will be the company, not the bosses, who will be held responsible.

The House of Lords did force an amendment to the act so that the law will cover prisoners who are killed while in custody. But the protection will only come into force three years into the act.

Click here to subscribe to our daily morning email newsletter 'Breakfast in red'

Article information

Tue 31 Jul 2007, 18:49 BST
Issue No. 2062
Share this article

Mobile users! Don't forget to add Socialist Worker to your home screen.