Socialist Worker

Health and safety rules save lives

by Joe Dwyer
Issue No. 2207

Multinational oil companies have recently been found responsible for an entirely preventable disaster. But this wasn’t BP polluting the Mexican Gulf, it was the Buncefield oil depot explosion on the outskirts of London in 2005.

A company controlled by Total and Chevron has been found guilty of a host of grave safety failures that led to the disaster.

If the Tories get their way such companies won’t even be inspected.

The Buncefield depot was destroyed on 11 December 2005 as a huge vapour cloud ignited when 250,000 litres of petrol leaked from one of its tanks.

The explosion injured 43 people and could be heard 125 miles away.

There were no fatalities, but this was almost certainly because the blast happened early on a Sunday when fewer people were at work.

The charges carry unlimited fines, and the penalties could run into millions. But no company director faces jail.

Instead of making the laws tougher, David Cameron claims that a “sensible new approach” is needed to “make clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm business with red tape”.

The press is full of stories about silly health and safety rules. But most of these are myths – such as the one that schoolchildren must wear goggles when playing conkers.

In reality health and safety rules save lives. Actual rules include the requirement that tractors have roll bars and machinery has safety guards.

Deaths and serious injuries at work have plummeted in the last 30 years because of health and safety legislation, and the constant campaigning of trade unionists.

The number of fatal injuries to workers has fallen more than 70 percent from 651 in 1974, when the Health and Safety at Work Act became law, to 180 in 2008-9.


But work is still a very dangerous place. A worker under the age of 19 is injured every 40 minutes and in the last ten years 66 have died, according to the British Safety Council.

The government’s response is to cut back on the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). It is attacking a service that has already been pared back. HSE has suffered cuts every year since 2003, losing 940 staff in the process, almost 25 percent of the total.

So the number of HSE inspections has nose-dived. A decade ago, an HSE inspector was likely to turn up at your workplace once every 8.4 years. Last year that had dropped to once every 38.5 years.

HSE prosecutions have dropped from 1,986 in 2001-2 to 1,090 for 2008-9. The number of convictions has also halved.

There has been no such drop in the number of workplace injuries.

Currently the HSE investigates fewer than one in 15 major injuries at work.

As its resources have diminished the HSE has put much more effort into advertising campaigns and advising employers, rather than enforcement.

Investigations and prosecutions due to ill health caused by work are rare. This is not surprising when you realise that the HSE now employs only five doctors – in the early 1990s HSE’s Employment Medical Advisory Service employed 50 to 60 doctors.

The Buncefield explosion shows the need to keep a close eye on oil companies. But the recruitment of specialist process safety engineers who inspect such sites has been frozen because of cuts.

And all this happened before the Tories arrived, guided by Lord Young’s review of health and safety.

Behind the talk of cutting red tape lies what might not be the most high profile cuts, but what may be the most deadly.

The Health and Safety at Work Act came into being in 1974 off the back of massive workers’ struggles, and social progress in the early 1970s. Any attempt to undermine the law or its enforcer, the HSE, must be met with the full force of trade union opposition.

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Tue 22 Jun 2010, 22:49 BST
Issue No. 2207
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