Quality of Working Life: Promoting a Healthy Agenda

Submitted by carolyn on Wed, 16/07/2008 - 16:15

June 2008

In June 2008 the Institute held the first of a series of conferences organised in Liverpool – the European City of Culture. Entitled The Quality of Working Life: Promoting a Healthy Agenda, the conference set the scene for the promotion of a radical approach to the Labour movement’s problems over health and safety.

In this report, Chris Ingram from Oasis Health and Safety provides a personal overview of the conference presentations and discussions.

In the final session of the one day conference, guest speaker and MP for Hayes & Harlington, John McDonnell argued that the Government’s current difficulties gave the Trade Union movement a 15 month window opportunity to push our health and safety agenda and convince the Government that TU support was in part dependent upon radical action over such health and safety issues as Directors Duties, appropriate and proper penalties for safety crimes and that the way to do this was to develope our own ‘Green Paper’ in the same as the Government does when bringing legislative changes to the House of Commons.

This radical approach was supported by speakers from the floor and from the top table alike.

Accepted by all at the conference is the belief, born out by facts, that voluntarism in health and safety legislation does not work. Furthermore, the role of the CBI in vetoing Government policy, certainly in terms of Directors Duties and the criminal prosecution of companies for ignoring health and safety legislation resulting in serious injury and death; was identified and acknowledged by the conference.

In order to combat this and the impasse on so many important health and safety workplace issues, radical action is required as far as the speaker MP John McDonnell is concerned, and a Health & Safety Green Paper is the way forward he argued:

“I firmly believe that the current government’s problems make it vulnerable to our demands for appropriate action on health and safety issues tabled by the trade union and labour movement. The way to do this is to develope our own agenda and publish it in the form of a green paper in the same way the government does when presenting changes in legislation to Parliament.”

Discussing the political climate and suggesting we had around 15 months before the next general election, John said that we need to move quickly over the next six months to develope our demands for further legislation on health and safety:

“ In the first period of the new labour governments, there were advances in employment an health & safety legislation. They have since, for many years, taken for granted the support of the trade union movement but now there is a change, an almost desperation in the Government to get trade union support. Trade Unions rights and health and safety are areas that can benefit from the current political climate. That gives us an advantage.”

He reinforced his view, but alerted the conference to the fact that, “Timescales are critical! The new agenda for the trade union movement has to be around the Trade Union Freedom Bill and further modern labour practice that provide a working environment concerned with health and safety and the minimum of work related stress. We need to start to campaign and move MPs on this agenda and engage them in it.”

The strategy he outlined consisted of starting the debate based on current research and fact based argument, have a limited discussion with the Government and CBI and finally publish our own Green Paper based on our agenda. He went further and said that we needed to engage the public in any ways we can to publicise and deliver our message around our agenda in our Green Paper.

We have a 15 month timescale before the Labour Manifesto is published for the next election, he said, and we need to ensure our Green Paper influences that. He went further, “We must engage the HSE and academics to find out ‘what it is like in work’ and publicise the findings.” Referring to the recent on-line blogg which asked why British people are so miserable, he offered an answer: “ It is because of the quality of working life. We spend 8 to 12 hours per day at work and therefore the quality of the working environment has a direct impact upon the quality of life.”

Returning to the issue of timescales he said, “We have 6 months to produce our ‘Green Paper’ and we should use this method in the same way as the Government does in pushing its agenda through Parliament and publicising it. We have no better opportunity now due to the atmosphere of survivability within government which gives us the opportunity to push our agenda regarding health and safety and the quality of working life.”

The IER conference, held at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool was successful and fulfilled its aims and urged the Labour movement to move forward in tackling issues such as Workplace Stress, Corporate Manslaughter, Promoting Better Jobs and a healthier workplace, suggesting a radical approach to these problems is the only answer.

Guest speakers included: John McDonnell MP, Professor Steve Tombs, Susan Murray, Simon Pickvance and Hilda Palmer.

Simon Pickvance, Sheffield Occupational Advisory Service, discussed the issue of work related stress and argued that the HSE management standards on stress are not enough to tackle the problem. His view was that a Quality of Working Life Act or similar is required, addressing the issues of occupational disease, work related stress and fairness of treatment at work.

“The problem is that women’s jobs have become more stressful since the year 2000, whilst the stats around men’s stress levels have stabilised.” He continued, “In the UK this situation is presented as an inevitability, whereas in Europe they take a different view.” Business models adapt to take into account work related stress and welfare of the workforce in forward thinking companies.

He gave an example of attitudes amongst management in UK business by mentioning a conversation he had at a conference with a BT Senior Manager who claimed they are dealing with work related stress and that the company was ahead of the rest of industry. When asked whether or not she had an influence over the BT business model, to which she replied of course not but we have to get on with it, push best practice and address the issues as they present themselves.

Moving on, Simon discussed the need to define stress and implement more research into looking at mundane jobs and the quality of jobs and find out how stress presents itself in such an environment. “Weakness in many trace union structures in the workplace make it difficult to talk about stress and gather real evidence and examples.”, he said. “How people describe stress is not always as the HSE does.”, he argued.

Simon identified in his presentation, several issues which he believed formed the basis of creating a stressful working environment. “ The duty of care exists in law and the lack of it causes stress, but this is often forgotten. We must get back to this element in law and whilst a Quality of Working Life Act may not be the answer, it certainly holds elements upon which we need to campaign.”

Recalling the history around this problem, Simon said in his presentation,

“ When the Labour Government took power in 1997, there were high hopes that we had a government committed to improving working lives. Yet most indicators show little if any progress in improving the quality of working lives.
Many are static, a few have improved. Others have got worse. In comparison with other EU states, UK’s record is better for some indicators but worse for many others.”

He went on, “ The epidemic of stress at work is the evidence of how far deregulation of the workplace has impacted on workers’ health. Occupational cancer cases, road deaths at work, and cases of heart disease caused by work, to name but a few, are uncounted. The occupational health establishment remains divided between those in a state of denial about common problems like stress and RSIs who believe the mantra that work is good for your health (in all
circumstances), and those who have experience of illness caused by work at least 2 million people a year and probably closer to 5 million.”

Referring to his background paper Simon said, “More than 20% of workers in UK say that they suffer from moderate to extreme stress. The government’s guidance on stress – the Management Standards – defines the areas for action; the demands of work, control over demands, support, relationships at work, roles and change. Yet UK workers have suffered a greater increase in the demands of work than workers elsewhere in Europe, they have little effective control over their work, managers claim an improvement in relations with employees when workers state that there has been no improvement; a minority have any influence over changes planned at work; half will receive no prior notification of changes.

There is little sign that the non-legislative approach taken by HSE with its Management Standards is having an effect.

Underlying the epidemic of stress he said is,

• Loss of social support at work.
• A breakdown in communication
• Declining work-life balance.
• Q loss of control by workers over essential aspects of working life
• Weakened employment protection
• Greater vulnerability in the labour market
• The fundamental relationship between employers and employees; the duty of care
• The duty of care is jeopardised for many workers on short-term contracts
• Unfairness in relationships is common
• The highest level of dissatisfaction amongst workers is with the fairness of pay that they receive

Stress is getting no better and may be getting worse. The worst off are certainly getting worse.”

Steven Kay, Vice Chair of Prospect’s HSE Branch told the conference that attacks on the HSE was having a major negative affect on their work. Discussing HSE: a review of current policy, funding and future prospects, Steve presented some grim news as far as the enforcing authority is concerned:

HSE are coming under unprecedented levels of attack from individuals in the media. These attacks use terms like: ‘health and safety fascist,’ ‘stormtrooper of health and safety fascism?’ or ‘zombie inspector who would bring the whole of Britain to a halt to save a life?’ They describe HSE as ‘the Guantanamo Bay of defensive administration?’ which seeks ‘to infect the nation with a sense that being safe is more important than being happy’ – health and safety being the cancer of a civilised society, a huge, ungainly, malignant, pulsating wart.’ They are ‘an unaccountable quango with the all pervasive power to ferret into your daily lives – the real Big Brother, keeping you under surveillance at work, rest and play’ or the ‘health and safety Taliban?’ or, inspectors are the ‘health and safety prefect who may trundle up to the workplace in executive charabancs to ensure that everybody’s shoelaces are tied according to regulation.’ We are living under the‘health and safety terror.’

Such comments come from Simon Jenkins; Jeremy Clarkson; The Sun editorial; the Chief Constable of West Yorkshire; and The Times leader three weeks ago.

These comments are clearly not rational never mind remotely true, but they are having an impact. Some may try to
dismiss them as extreme views, irrelevant, or some may say humorous but these views are insidious, they worm their way into the collective psyche – a lie told often enough starts to appear true. It also increases the chance HSE inspectors being assaulted or worse (look at the way traffic wardens are vilified – and the intolerable violence they encounter).

Simon Heffer on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last month, essentially gave the view that health and safety legislation was unnecessary. He said, “no one in his right mind would argue that an employer should wilfully endanger the lives of his staff: but then any employer who did would soon find it impossible to recruit, and would go out of business in short order.” The free market regulating naturally – the HSWA replaced by the Devil take the hindmost.”

Steve went on, “ Why is HSE such a target for these right wing attacks. Why such vitriol – and attempts to dehumanise Prospect members? Is it coordinated? Is it a deliberate assault on what they would see as a throwback to 1970s style social consensus, to turn the safety watchdog into a lapdog?

Government is silent in HSE’s defence. Gordon Brown has barely acknowledged its existence. He found it politically convenient for HSE to go to Pirbright to report on what happened with FMD, even though this investigation was way outside HSE’s remit – it’s just that HSE’s perceived independence was politically convenient to his damage limitation PR. Other than that, he and Tony Blair have only mentioned HSE when playing to the gallery of the deregulation lobby,
referring to the need to cut back on overzealous enforcement.

The government are certainly not going to stick their heads above this particular parapet and speak out against those who commit workplace health and safety crime. They could be accused of being complicit with the deregulationist army laying siege.”

Steve highlighted the way in which reduction in Government funding shows they are truly complicate in the downfall in the effectiveness of the HSE.

“Since 2002 HSE’s budget has been cut year on year – with below inflation Spending Review settlements. We are currently awaiting news of the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review settlement which sets spending from this April. Everyone expects it to be at least 5% cuts below inflation from now up to 2011. We will have to take our share of the DWP (our parent department’s) cuts – which amount to 16.8% cuts over three years.

Get ready for the official line being that HSE’s settlement is very generous if they get anything less than the full 16.8% cut: be grateful you’ve only lost one leg sort of thing. HSE are already about 17% down on 2002 staffing levels when comparing like with like. By 2011 this could be something like a 30% cut from 2002 levels.”

Steve reminded the conference: “ These cuts have a direct impact on what we can do to stop people getting injured or killed at work. To get an idea of the scale of the problem HSE faces, one can make a somewhat crude
comparison with British Crime Survey statistics. Something like 18,000 violent crimes a year require some hospital treatment whereas there are around 30,000 reported workplace major injuries (things like amputations, fractures to limbs, serious burns, or injuries requiring at least 24 hours in hospital – and high non-reporting levels will add perhaps another 10,000). This doesn’t include the 200,000 odd injuries keeping people off work for over 3 days, or the tens of
thousands dying of occupational cancer each year. And yet HSE receives about as much public funding as Avon and Somerset Police Authority.”

He went further: “HSE is not investigating many of even the most serious accidents. The Field Operation Directorate which covers the bulk of HSE’s work, has set itself Incident Selection Criteria to determine those reported accidents it believes should be investigated. The number of these HSE failed to investigate due to lack of resources has increased in recent years (188 in 2004/05, 255 in 2005/06 and 307 in 2006/07). As it is, HSE only investigates 11% of reported major injuries).

HSE is now carrying out about half the number of prosecutions it did in the early 1990s. This is not the result of improved standards, but more employers getting away with workplace crimes.

Prospect is aware that prosecutions are not being taken even though sufficient evidence exists, simply because there are not the resources to pursue them. This is the reality of ‘living under the terror.’ Thousands being killed by their work each year, and no comeback on those responsible, no justice. We are not risk averse, we are risk tolerant. HSE has nothing to do with banning plastic swords in school plays and the other, often made up, stories that do the rounds.”

Steve concluded his review of Governments record by advising the conference,

“The government’s actions show that all they want is a figleaf of regulation.

When Prospect have met ministers and argued for more government money, they often sympathise and say they would like to do more, but then make the argument that HSE has no monopoly over saving lives – that the government has to balance expenditure between departments who also have a good claim over funding to save lives. A big difference though is that lives are being lost through injuries and ill health inflicted on employees due in many cases to unpunished criminal acts – but that statement about ‘criminal acts’ is worth exploring in itself.

Is it even seen as a crime to breach health and safety law? Many people do not regard HSE as a law enforcement body, including ministers and other influential people in the safety system. Rather what they see HSE as, is a PR exercise: a bit like a government campaign to encourage healthy living: eat your five portions of fruit and veg a day, and also try not to be beastly to workers by killing them or other such unpleasantness.”

Finally Steve asked this rhetorical question – Where do we go from here?

“ Well, we can win this argument. Our moral case cannot be challenged.” He answered.

“ We can also argue on their terms: there is also a strong economic case: with small amounts spent on increasing enforcement having a large impact on health and safety behaviours amongst employers. Poor health and safety is costing the economy billions of pounds (between£20-30bn), so investing just small amounts in regulation would have a huge payback to the economy.

We won the arguments before the DWP Select Committee in 2004, when they agreed with our call for a doubling of the numbers of inspectors. I don’t doubt we’ll win again in the current inquiry, but it’s about more than winning the intellectual argument. Somehow we’ve got to unlock the political will. We’ve got to change the culture, marginalise the Simon Jenkins and Jeremy Clarksons, we’ve got to apply pressure on politicians, and get politicians to promote the positive aspects of regulation and send out the message that health and safety in the workplace matters. There will be opportunities coming up to continue to press our case.

For example, there will be the Select Committee report, which should give us an opportunity to pressure the government. Also HSE will be consulting this year on its next strategy to take us beyond 2010. The last strategy was marked by the shift of resource away from inspection and an emphasis on softer, promotional interventions: I think this provides a real opportunity to push for an evidence-based approach, rather than one which panders to deregulation.

They have tried things like Workplace Health Connect: using £20M to fund consultants to do HSE’s job: it was expensive and didn’t work, it had no basis in evidence. We told you so. We in this room know we’re right; we just need everyone else to recognise it too.”

In what was a very animated presentation, Professor Steve Tombs, at Liverpool John Moores University, brought the conference up to date with the Corporate Manslaughter legislation.

Opening, he advised the conference that the positive elements within the legislation mean that it is no longer necessary to prosecute first an individual director or senior manager, in order to prosecute an organisation. It is now possible to prosecute the organisation on the basis of the management failure of the organisation because the offence no longer only applies to companies. Additionally, there are useful criteria to assist a jury in determining whether a management failure is ‘gross’ and it has now raised issues of sentencing.

However, he pointed out, there are some serious issues with the legislation which means it is not as affective as we first envisaged. For example, there ar two key uncertainties:how broadly will the courts define ‘senior management’? and how will they interpret ‘substantial’ failure in relation to the senior manager link?

Offering an answer to this rhetorical question, Steve pointed out that there needs to be a much more consistent link between criteria that reflect the company’s wealth and the level of fine imposed simply because manslaughter is one of the most serious criminal offences.

He disagreed with SAP’s view that 10% of turnover should be the highest possible sentence, explaining that this is because under the Financial Services Authority, the highest administrative fine that can be imposed is 10% of the global turnover of the organisation. His view was that percentages for manslaughter should be in a range from 20% of turnover and that any fine imposed upon a company convicted of corporate manslaughter should at the very least remove any gross profits made by that company for the year. A view welcomed by the conference delegates.

In closing, Steve said that the actual affects of the law are as yet not known, and that these remain a political issue – so pressure must continue from the Trade Union movement and all interested parties concerned with justice for those killed at work.

Attacking in strong terms, the current situation with regard to deaths at work in Britain, Hilda Palmer from Greater Manchester Hazards, said that the official statistics where inaccurate and too conservative.

In challenging the HSE official figures and calling for the Trade Union movement to use figures which were far more accurate, Hilda Palmer from Hazards Campaign gave a presentation on the work of both Hazards and the recently formed Families Against Corporate Killers.

Detailing the work done by the national campaigning group Hazards, she provided worker deaths and injury statistics used by the organisation, stating that they are more accurate than those of the HSE and take into account factors that the HSE fail to include.

Reiterating the message given on the Hazards Campaign website, Hilda advised those attending the conference that it is estimated that every year 1,600 to 1,700 people die in incidents at work with up to 50,000 people dieing due to work-related illnesses.

The Hazards Campaign website provides these alarming facts she said:

“The HSE headline figure is that 241 were killed by work in 2006/07 but this only refers to workers (employees, 185, and the self employed, 56 ) killed in incidents reported to HSE. It does not include members of the public (369), those killed in work-related road traffic incidents (over 1,000) or in the seas around the coast (about 30). Neither does it include those killed by illnesses caused by work and so is a gross underestimation.

Figures for the current year 2006/07 are much worse than for 2005/06. Construction fatalities were up from 60 in 05/06 to 77, a rise of around 30%. UCATT, PCS and Prospect trade unions link the rise in death to cuts in resources available to the HSE. The number of HSE inspections, Improvement and Prohibition Notices, safety prosecutions and convictions and inspector contact times have all dropped markedly in recent years, though they have risen a little from this low lately.”

The guest speakers on the top table, including John McDonnell MP, and Professor Steve Tombs, Liverpool John Moores University, nodded in agreement during her presentation, which was enthusiastically applauded by the conference.

Speaking on the success of the Conference in her closing comments, and whilst thanking all guest speakers, the Chair Carolyn Jones said,

“The message from the conference was clear – the quality of working life in the UK falls way below expectations. Too many workers are over worked, under paid and stressed. Worst, far too many people are dying either at work or due to reasons linked to their job. It’s time to wake up to this reality and engage people and politicians in the discussion on how to improve the health, safety and quality of working life in the 21st century. The Institute will do what it can to ensure this issue is at the centre of the political agenda over the next 15 months.”

Attending the conference from the NW BT Unions Health & Safety Co-ord were Derek Maylor and Chris Ingram.

Derek felt the conference was an excellent opportunity to discuss key issues. He said, “History will show whether or not at this point the Trade Union and Labour movement are able to grasp this opportunity, and progress to the position of developing a Green Paper designed to address all the workplace issues and quality of working life addressed at this conference.”

Chris Ingram agreed, “Hopefully the document to the right as an example of what may be achieved, will not remain a figment of my imagination and an expectation that is never realised. All of today’s speakers and conference attendees have their work cut out and need to ensure the next six months is dedicated to progressing the issues and making Britain a less stressful and negative country in which to work. We have a lot to do to catch up with many of our European neighbours.”

You can download all the conference presentations from the IER website here

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