EVERY YEAR hundreds of workers are killed at work, and thousands more suffer injuries from unsafe working conditions. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the official body charged with ensuring safety standards at work.
But according to John Prescott's Cabinet Office the HSE is part of the government's Cobra committee. This was set up to break any action by the Fire Brigades Union in its pay dispute.
It is not the first time trade unionists have had cause to question whether senior management at the HSE is truly independent of political pressure. Rail unions have found that the HSE has invariably accepted train companies' word that they have been able to maintain safety standards during strikes. That has happened in the guards' long-running pay dispute at Arriva Trains Northern.
The rail arm of HSE, traditionally close to the industry, has agreed train operators' 'safety cases' without even conducting on the spot inspections. The Cullen inquiry into the train crash at Ladbroke Grove, west London, was launched by the HSE last year and led to a shake-up over rail safety. But it deliberately avoided discussion of the safety role of guards because, according to Lord Cullen, there was at 'an industrial dispute over it' at the time.
HSE management is obsessed with being seen not to endorse industrial action over safety. That does not make it impartial. It leaves it even more subject to demands from government ministers, who also hold the purse strings.
Safety at work is one of the sharpest points of confrontation between employers constantly seeking to screw more out of workers and unions trying to protect employees. The HSE itself is a by-product of militant union action over safety. It was formed in 1974 to enforce the Health and Safety at Work Act passed that year.
This came after the wave of militant working class struggle which swept across Britain in the early 1970s. Trade unionists also had to struggle to get bosses to recognise safety dangers such as asbestos. The Health and Safety Act set up a 'tripartite' commission of employers, the unions and the government to oversee the HSE. But under Thatcher in the 1980s it was chronically underfunded and subordinate to the government.
That has not changed under New Labour. The government has adopted a contradictory policy of deregulating business while setting targets for reducing accidents at work. It says it wants a 10 percent reduction in deaths and serious injuries at work by 2010. Tellingly, it has set a higher target for a 30 percent fall in the number of days off through work-related accidents. But a recent comprehensive study of the HSE by the Centre for Corporate Accountability, commissioned by the Unison union, shows there is currently no hope of hitting those targets.
The main HSE division has just 419 inspectors. They are responsible for inspecting 736,000 premises, and pursuing any investigations and prosecutions. The government gave the HSE just £103 million last year, barely a quarter of what it gave to the West Midlands police alone.
The lack of funding means a registered workplace will get an inspection only once every 20 years. The number of inspections has fallen by 43 percent over the last five years. This is despite the fact that evidence shows such inspections play a significant role in reducing accidents.
One reason for the fall in inspections is government pressure to get the HSE to be seen to undertake more investigations while making do with the same resources. The inspectors' union, Prospect, says this means a huge workload for inspectors as they have to play the role of police, solicitor and barrister for every prosecution.
Even then a staggering number of incidents are not investigated, and many of those that are do not lead to prosecution. Four out of five 'major injuries' at work last year were not investigated. Two out of three deaths did not result in prosecution. The figure for major injuries was nine out of ten.
In the three years from 1996 to 1999 just nine out of 854 workplace deaths resulted in the prosecution of a top manager. Two steps could help reverse the trend. One would be a powerful campaign for more safety inspectors and tighter regulation of business.
The other would be for the HSE to help recruit an army of trade union health and safety reps, and to encourage them to take action over working conditions. That, however, would mean abandoning the fiction that safety can be enforced by being 'neutral' between workers and the employers.