WORKERS AT the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) are continuing their programme of industrial action after management imposed a pay offer.
They are in a battle not only against HSE management, but are up against an assault by the government in the name of deregulation.
New Labour’s review of the rail industry was due to be published this week.
It was widely expected to propose shifting responsibility for inspection and enforcement of safety on the railway from the HSE to a revamped rail regulator, whose primary purpose would be ensuring the profitability of the industry.
The rail unions and the TUC have come out strongly against the move.
It would undermine the principle of an independent rail safety inspectorate, which the Cullen inquiry into the Ladbroke Grove rail disaster supported.
The move comes after a concerted campaign by the private rail companies accusing the HSE of “over-regulation”.
The government appears to be caving in not only to the rail bosses but to employers as a whole over further deregulation of safety standards.
Heath and safety specialists in several trade unions have told Socialist Worker they are “deeply concerned” that there appears to be a mounting assault on safety standards and the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.
One major attack hails from the neo-liberal regulations coming from the European Union and supported by the government.
Under a new draft directive on the European internal market, a company based in one of the EU member states setting up a “non-permanent” operation in another will be exempt from regulation in the host country.
Instead safety regulation will be the responsibility of the state the parent company is based in.
That would mean that HSE inspectors in Britain would have no jurisdiction over a temporary company set up here by a firm based in, say, one of the new EU states in Eastern Europe, where safety standards are more lax.
Significantly, manufacturing union Amicus, which has traditionally been strongly pro-EU, has spoken out strongly against the proposals.
Amicus general secretary Derek Simpson says, “UK health and safety standards are hard won, and this directive threatens to dilute standards and compromise British workers and public safety without any redress to regulatory bodies.
“It is ironic that this directive, which undermines the safety of British workers, has won wholehearted support from the Department of Trade and Industry.”
An internal HSE document spells out the possible consequences of the directive.
They range from stopping workers getting compensation for injuries through to limiting the chances of criminal prosecutions.
The EU directive entirely fits the government’s aim of slashing safety regulation.
The HSE now faces a catastrophic cut to its budget that will mean one in six jobs—600 posts—going over the next three years.
New investigation procedures already mean inspections are being reduced and reserved only for when there are already serious incidents or breaches of standards.
There are understood to be discussions inside the HSE over no longer inspecting hospitals and schools on the basis that they already have regulators such as Ofsted.
But those agencies are not safety specialists, and any teacher would be shocked to discover that their and their pupils’ health and safety were to be entrusted to Ofsted inspectors.
Around the edges of health and safety enforcement are many other attempts to whittle away standards.
The time available for first aid courses has been cut.
New regulations on air quality have been produced which simply left out dozens of hazardous chemicals.
Last year Tony Blair chaired a top-level committee that complained of “over-regulation” of British business.
Meanwhile the number of serious injuries sustained at work is rising.
This major attack on conditions at work has so far gone barely noticed.
It is time for every trade union to launch a concerted fight to defend regulations that have been built up over the past 30 years.
Many trade union activists rightly have criticisms of the HSE.
But it is clear the government wants an even tamer body, and possibly the break-up of a single inspectorate into powerless industry bodies which are much closer to management.
This would be a victory for profit over people.