Friday, 6 August 2010

The Future Of The Health And Safety Executive

What are we to make of David Cameron’s pre-election rhetoric about introducing changes to how the government handles health and safety issues?

Prior to the general election, David Cameron stated, “something EDP Health, Safety & Environment, The Conservative Manifesto 2010has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety over the last decade”. He also said, “an ‘over-the-top’ health and safety culture has become embedded in the national way of life”.

More recently, the Prime Minister reiterated similar sentiments in the words, “The rise of the compensation culture over the last 10 years is a real concern, as is the way health and safety rules are sometimes applied.” He then went on to say, “We need a sensible new approach that makes clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm businesses with red tape.”

Lord Young of Graffham is to head up a review. In regard to health and safety, Lord Young is quoted as saying, “Health and Safety regulation is essential in some industries but may well have been applied too generally and have become an unnecessary burden on firms, but also community organisations and public services. I hope my review will reintroduce an element of common sense and focus the regulation where it is most needed.”
A decade ago, the Health and Safety Executive could be expected to turn up at the average UK workplace once every few years. But unpublished official figures obtained by Hazards show workplaces are now lucky to see the pared back watchdog once in a working lifetime.

Unison have been campaigning on this. They say the HSE by 2008 have lost around 17% of the staff it had in 2002.

Surveys consistently show that the HSE as one of the most highly regarded public bodies amongst members of the public, employees and employers. HSE is also internationally respected for its expertise on health and safety and has provided a model for many other countries. It produces authoritative advice and guidance, quality research, and a first class forensic capability when things go wrong such as
Buncefield. They have experts in engineering, nuclear safety, occupational health and so on. But many specialist skills are facing severe shortage, as HSE is unable to recruit at market levels and can no longer afford to maintain its expertise.
The HSE uses a range of techniques to remove risks from the workplace, and to improve the way health and safety is managed. They prefer to get voluntary compliance but when that does not work they can force changes. They also take action when things go wrong and prosecute for serious breaches of the law. Simply put: they save lives!


NickJ said...

I think a review of health and safety practice is definitely needed. I don't mean cutting back or changing the remit of the HSE (although it will no doubt see some cutbacks along with every other public body), but addressing the fact that organisations are now subject to all sorts of burdensome, time-consuming and sometimes expensive requirements. I'm not saying we shouldn't have an eye on safety, however I think the current nanny culture (preventing any untrained staff from climbing ladders, not permitting shelves above head-height, or insisting on 4-page safety documents with every commercial sale of Tippex and blue tack) has gone too far.

What we need, first, however, is an end to the "sue me" culture which has grown over recent years. Previously, if we fell over, we would pick ourselves up and say "that was careless", now instead people immediately say "whose fault was this? who will compensate me £10k?". The craziest example I can think of is a burglar's right to sue their victim if they injure themselves whilst breaking in!

Sadly, I don't think the H&S laws can be changed to remove the overly protective and burdensome legislation until we lose the desire to sue someone for anything, and this change is not one which the Government is able to make.

Adrian Windisch said...

I dont buy the line about everyone suing after every trip, it happens sometimes, a small number of people. And it causes safer footpaths, more handrails, saves people from getting hurt.

There are lots of H&S myths, often repeated in the tabloids and by the Tories and Ukip. When you check out the stories its often not true.

Cutting the HSE will see more deaths. I work in construction, they have improved safety standards, I dont want to go back to the 70's.

I am against the cutting agenda of the ConDems, I would rather see the banks pay back what they owe, then we would not be in such debt.

NickJ said...

Safer footpaths is good, but how about just having the Council repair the footpath rather than repair it and pay out thousands in compensation? Cover any loss of earnings, but nothing more. What is the actual cost to the public of these compensation claims? Higher taxation, lower public spending, both?

Construction site safety and other such HSE laws are good, however I think that at times health and safety has gone too far - such as the example in my comment (which again you ignored) about the 4-page safety advice given with Tippex, which pretty much said 'this product isn't dangerous' anyway.

I fully agree with you on having banks pay back the public money spent on them (topical at the moment with RBS announcing £1.1bn half-year profits) and that is where we should start, however I'm sure that there is wastage/unnecessary spending in some public bodies, and this can be reduced with little or no impact to the actual service provided (e.g. finding cheaper suppliers, more efficient products, discouraging office staff from printing everything). We should not cut for the sake of it, or with impact on service provision, but nor should we assume that Organisation X needs £12m this year just because that is what they spent last year.

Adrian Windisch said...

So here we are in some agreement. I much prefer improved footpaths to paying compensation, but the point is some Councils need the threat of legal action to do it.

I have heard many myths about H&S,
If you give a link for your examples I will treat them more seriously.

Some horror stories

NickJ said...

Here we are indeed in agreement.

I think the compensation one is a question of balance, and knowing where to draw the line is difficult - while it may serve as an incentive to address problems, it also serves to limit the funds available to actually do so. Compensation should, I think, be limited to actual costs incurred (loss of earnings, medical bills, etc) and not used as a punitive charge.

Links for my examples:
The 4-page document at was included with a recent purchase of Tippex which I made (in work).

It would appear I was slightly off the mark with the shelves comment. I had been told that no shelf should be above head height, when in fact HSE just advise not to put heavy things on them ( I'm with them on that!

Ladder training - states that anyone working 'at height' (defined not very helpfully as any point from which you can fall and hurt yourself!) should be trained (page 3, section 16). would be one example of an employer telling staff not to change light bulbs because of the height.

Action to prevent accidents such as the ones in your links is good, however I think that some H&S laws - or perhaps that should say some people's interpretations of them - are going too far.

As an example of a step in the right direction, burglars are no longer able to sue home-owners if they injure themselves while breaking in -

Adrian Windisch said...

You have largely answered your own question. The shelf was a myth. The ladder, if you see the links I gave before, people seem to need training, it can all go horribly wrong. The link you gave on school guidance has examples of this.

Burglers sueing home-owners your link is from 2003. I am not sure its exactly a H&S issue, and seems full of myths.

Similarly compensating for trips is not exactly H&S, its more about insurance and legal. The media always talk of the huge payout cases and ignore the more common minor ones, with exaggerates the problem. Soldiers injured in war tend to get very little.

OK the big one. A 4 page tippex guidance. It could be summarised. But the point is every chemical needs such data, no exceptions. Does it really damage your life to cope with this?

In construction we have to prepare H&S asessments for all actions and chemicals used. They are much the same every time so just get copied. They are a bit anoying, but they can save lives, so its worth the fuss.

NickJ said...

As I said, I think the problem lies not in the law itself, but in its (mis)interpretation by a small number of individuals. Unfortunately, if the person making this misinterpretation were a judge, precedent could be set and then it starts getting out of hand. "This product is hot" being written on coffee cups, or "this product contains nuts" on a bag of peanuts, for example - no links necessary, just go to the supermarket! :-)

As I've said several times, life-saving regulations are good (construction site safety, being one such example), but not every regulation saves lives. In the past, Tippex simply said "don't eat this" on it (I think common sense also said this!) and this was enough, what changed to mean it now needs a 4-page safety document printing out and posting with every bottle? As a Green Party member, I would have thought such practice annoyed you no end.

It seems that some safety warnings exist not to protect people from harm but to protect corporations from legal action. My wife suffers a nut allergy; unfortunately, pretty much every product has some form of "this may contain nuts" warning on it (even some bottled water states the manufacturer can't promise it to be nut-free!) meaning that she is largely in the dark as to which products might genuinely contain traces, due to contaminated production lines or whatever, and which are safe to eat. Were she to avoid every product which had a nut warning on it she would likely suffer malnutrition before her allergy did her any harm!

This is the point at which, in my opinion, our compensation-minded society has gone too far, and indeed is probably what Mr Cameron meant when talking about "an over-the-top health and safety culture" or "the way health and safety rules are sometimes applied".

As I said, I fear that the laws and regulations can't be changed until a (very small) sub-set of society stops thinking that someone else is always to blame.

Adrian Windisch said...

Well I agree prining out the 4 pages every time is silly. Thats a different issue to having a 4 page info sheet on file.

The heat/nut warning message cost nothing and make sense. Perhaps you dont need to read it, but someone else will. Corporations respond to being sued, thats a good thing.

Your better off eating less processed food anyway. No nut warning on vegeatbes or meat.

Cameron I fear is responding to a myth driven daily mail agenda that blames the H&S culture for things that are not true. We shall see what he actually does.

NickJ said...

We do need to read the nut warnings, though, as it could be really bad for her if she eats them. Unfortunately, when even water has a warning, it makes them almost pointless. Totally agree about eating real food, though, and we do where possible (and organic wherever possible, too), but can't do this all the time.

Altering the production process to eradicate traces of nuts would be a good response; carrying on the same way but saying "we did warn you" less so. That's a separate conversation, though.

I wouldn't want to see the HSE cut back to the detriment of people's safety, but do think our blame culture is getting out of hand. If that's what DC meant, I agree with him (painful though it is to say those words!); if however, he's just trying to justify another cutback (whilst ignoring the £97bn Trident project) then I'm with you instead!

Adrian Windisch said...

I suspect he has a cutting agenda, and is looking for excuses. The HSE does an excellent job, but needs an increase in funding. A reduction will cost lives.

But Cameron is cutting speed cameras so doesnt seem concerned with increasing road deaths. And that will reduce his revenue, speed cameras are a good way of generating income.

I have no sympathy for those getting caught, I admit to being fined once myself. I learned from the experience.

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