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The safety of every worker is on the line

This article is over 17 years, 1 months old
A battle has begun over whether workplaces will be safe and whether anyone will be there to monitor the laws says Steven Kay, branch chair of the Prospect trade union at the Health and Safety Executive
Issue 1931

PROSPECT IS the trade union for frontline staff in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). We recently took the unprecedented step of balloting our 1,800 members on whether they had confidence in the three-person executive which heads up HSE.

The result was that 96.4 percent have no confidence. Why did we take this step? What has provoked such views among a traditionally phlegmatic membership?

It was the view of the branch’s leadership that we were at a crunch point and that we had a duty to our members, the wider union movement and the public to do what we could to influence the debate over the future of health and safety regulation.

HSE is being financially strangled by a government influenced more by free market ideas and a drive for deregulation than by a sense of duty to protect the safety of its citizens from unscrupulous and criminal employers.

Since 1997, government funding for HSE has not even kept up with inflation.

HSE is now worse off in real terms than it was under John Major’s Tory government of 1992-7.The 2002 government spending review was disastrous, and saw a cut of at least £10 million in real terms over three years.

The 2004 spending review could mean cuts of perhaps £50 million by 2007-8. This equates to the loss of around 600 staff.

The government also drags its feet over legislation on corporate killing.

It refuses to legislate on directors’ duties, workers’ rights and the lifting of Crown immunity (which means public bodies and government agencies are not liable for criminal prosecution).

A Commons select committee produced an incisive and well thought through report calling for better resources for HSE, including a doubling over time of the number of inspectors. The government’s response, largely drafted by HSE management, is a shameful attempt to deflect parliament’s influence.

But not only do the government not do anything positive, they denigrate legislation as “red tape”, and encourage people to regard civil service workers as bureaucrats. Is it any surprise that employers think they can get away with it, with signals like that?

Our vote is the culmination of a brewing discontent with the lack of ability of the HSE to stop the organisation from becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Management’s approach is that we should all bend with the Treasury/Number 10 wind, keep our heads down and valiantly try to somehow pull off the miracle delivery of government targets within ever-diminishing resources.

When the HSE director general gave evidence to the select committee he was asked by the chair, “If you had some extra resources, if we were able to magic up some central government resources, what would be the two things that you would spend the money on?”

The director general didn’t say he would spend more on stopping people getting injured, or plug gaps in enforcement and stop employers going unpunished for killing and maiming people.

The best he could come up with was, “I think more money for us to inform and to give guidance to people is absolutely crucial.”

This position has been further clarified with statements that even if there was more money available to HSE it would not be spent on more inspectors.

HSE’s response to the financial crisis is to search for a magic wand to bring the accident and ill health rates down without getting involved in grubby, business-unfriendly enforcement.

HSE is pinning its hopes on a new strategy. It is based on the belief that businesses do not intentionally disregard safety—it is simply ignorance on their part and businesses are basically moral bodies.

So businesses will become safe and healthy if only they have the right information!

You can also get others to spread the gospel for you—you forge “partnerships” and work with “intermediaries” in the hope that they will then do things to improve health and safety standards with those they work with.

Also this work doesn’t require trained and qualified inspectors to deliver it, so HSE have recruited people they call “health and safety awareness officers”—who have only very basic training—to go out in a promotional role.

There is nothing wrong with trying to get businesses to comply voluntarily, but HSE intends to do this as a substitute for enforcing the law.

Under its present leadership, HSE will continue to decline.

They believe there is a role for inspection and enforcement, but not as a driving force for bringing down injury rates.

The role of inspection is reduced to a political one—to provide a figleaf prosecution profile, and to prevent large-scale incidents which might create an electoral risk (as opposed to single victim incidents which don’t raise alarm provided we stay below EU averages).

Prospect do not feel we should go along with appeasement of the Treasury.

Instead of bending with the wind we believe we should be trying to change it.


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