Every day 60 people die due to work – Health and Safety laws matter

18 October 2010 Steve Tombs and David Whyte The authors of a new IER book, Regulatory Surrender: death, injury and the non-enforcement of law reject Lord Young’s health and safety proposals, noting they are based on little more than media myths.

Commentary icon18 Oct 2010|Comment

David Whyte
David Whyte

Professor of Socio-legal Studies, University of Liverpool

Steve Tombs

Professor of Criminology, Open University

18 October 2010

Steve Tombs and David Whyte

The authors of a new IER book, Regulatory Surrender: death, injury and the non-enforcement of law reject Lord Young’s health and safety proposals, noting they are based on little more than media myths.

‘Elf and Safety gone mad’, a phrase coined first by tabloid columnists, is fast becoming the driving force of government policy. Today, Lord Young announced a raft of measures aimed at attacking the so-called compensation culture and reducing further the possibilities for workers to seek compensation through the no win, no fee system.

Most of us are fed up of being approached by ambulance-chasing lawyers either on the doorstep or by phone to ask us if we have had an ‘accident’ in the past. But we all know reality is quite different from perception.

Major Injuries Investigated

In Lord Young’s world, perception and tabloid fantasy count as a reason for governments to waste a lot of time and energy. In his report he refers to a ‘Constitutional Affairs Committee Report 2007’ that found that “people perceive Britain to be a far more litigious society than it was 10 or 20 years ago”.

The report did say this, but what Lord Young does not mention is that its main conclusion was that “it is evident from the statistical evidence that the UK is not moving towards a ‘compensation culture’ driven by a significant increase in litigation”. Note incidentally that this conclusion was identical to the findings of an earlier fruitless search for Britain’s compensation culture by a Cabinet Office review on 2004. Lord Young is not the first, and won’t be the last to try to invent a problem in order to offer some hastily cooked up ‘solutions’.

Lord Young is using a perception – a myth – cast adrift from any evidence, save generally apochryphal, endlessly recycled anecdotes, to make some rash conclusions about the over-burdening regulation of ‘health and safety’. His report uses a fake problem to propose that we to remove the ‘burden’ of legal protection from thousands of workplaces.

It is one thing to lighten paperwork necessary to schoolkids on trips – but it is reckless leap from this to Young’s subsequent claim that schools are low risk workplaces and should be allowed to comply with health and safety regulations by filling out a check-list. Try telling Michael Lees that schools are ‘low risk’ workplaces. He set up ‘Asbestos in Schools’ after his wife died of mesothelioma at the age of 51.

She had been a primary school teacher for 30 years in five independent schools and more than 18 state schools, the majority of which contained asbestos. Most of the decaying buildings that house our schools were built 30-50 years ago and contain asbestos. This means that the greatest risk traditionally faced by building workers – the risk of the most horrifically drawn out and painful of industrial diseases – is now faced by an increasing number of children and teachers in ‘low risk’ jobs.

And this is where the compensation culture is most cruelly reveled as fake. Only half of the 2,000 people officially recorded as dying each year of the asbestos caused mesothelioma receive government industrial injuries benefit payments. Hardly anyone out of the 20,000 people who suffer from any other work related cancers receives compensation.

As the Hazards Movement – the rank and file organisation of trade union safety representatives – has found, fewer than 1 in 10 workplace ill-health or injury victims get awarded any compensation in the common law system. Indeed, the annual compensation bill is less than 10 per cent of the costs of occupational injuries and disease borne by the victims and their dependants.

The real issue that is neatly sidestepped by Lord Young’s review of common law compensation claims is the withdrawal of a credible threat of law enforcement from employers who kill and injure their workers. As we pointed out in an earlier blog for Left Foot Forward, there is no evidence that workplaces are over regulated, but the very opposite: workers are being made more vulnerable by a system of protection that is being very rapidly withdrawn.

A very small number of the total deaths at work ever come to the attention of the Health and Safety Executive. But perhaps more shocking is that a large number of very serious injuries that are reported to the Health and Safety Executive go uninvestigated. And, as the table below shows, investigation of serious injuries has declined very rapidly indeed over the past decade.

Further, breaches of health and safety law rarely end up in court – the number of prosecutions has almost halved over the past ten years. Even then, the outcomes are derisory: an average fine of less than £12,000 on conviction or, if the conviction follows a death, an average of less than £45,000.

Every year, some 1,500 people lose their lives in the UK through a fatal occupational injury – not to mention the (at least) 20,000-plus who die of occupational illness; so, to be blunt, if today is an average day, at least 60 people will have died due to work. An increasing number of them work in what Lord Young calls ‘low risk’ workplaces, and few of the families of those who died, like those who are injured and made ill, will gain any compensation at all.

David Whyte

David Whyte

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool. He has written several publications on health and... Read more »

Steve Tombs

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at the Open University. He has previously written publications covering health and safety issues... Read more »