Expert speakers bust tabloid myths at “priceless” IER conference

23 May 2012 Busting myths, decoding goverment terminology and examining the shocking human cost of undermining health and safety law.

Commentary icon23 May 2012|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

23 May 2012

Busting myths, decoding goverment terminology and examining the shocking human cost of undermining health and safety law.

Many thanks to everybody who attended our Reviewing Lofstedt conference at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool yesterday (May 22nd). We’re delighted to have received glowing feedback from delegates, some of whom described the event as “priceless” and a “superb day”. Like the previous Reviewing Lofstedt conference in London, the conference exposed many fresh and thought-provoking angles on the government’s assault on health and safety legislation and Professor Ragnar Lofstedt’s review into the issue, some of which are detailed below.

Lofstedt Review “part of a wider deregulatory agenda”

Lofstedt recommended that health and safety legislation be consolidated by 35% and has firmly stated his position as against significant cuts, but don’t let this fool you into thinking his review could throw a spanner into the works of the coalition’s aims to tear down the regulations that protect Britain’s workers.

David Whyte of the University of Liverpool claimed at both the London and Liverpool conferences that Lofstedt’s report is just “part of a wider deregulatory agenda” being pursued by the government.

When the powers that be describe a workplace as “low-risk”, inspectors are prohibited from carrying out proactive checks, potentially putting employees in greater danger. But Whyte noted that such terms are never defined, allowing the government to call a number of hazardous workplaces low-risk and get away with cutting health and safety inspections.

Furthermore, the coalition has introduced further cuts to the number of inspections on workplaces – which has been falling for years. Whyte argued that against this overwhelmingly oppositional background to health and safety legislation, Lofstedt’s review is fairly “insignificant” and can easily be used to the government’s advantage. He concluded that: “Its effect is to give an aggressive government attack upon worker safety a thin veneer of academic respectability.”

“Government neglect” of HSE

James Taylor, vice-chair of Prospect HSE branch, noted that many employers only comply with health and safety legislation because they fear an inspection, and with state checks on workplaces plunging downwards in number, businesses simply do not have the same incentive to abide by the law.

With entire sectors “exempt” from proactive inspections due to being “low-risk” – including public transport, some manufacturing industries, agriculture, docks, quarries, health, prisons, emergency services and electricity generation – apathy toward worker protection may be rife.

But this isn’t the only way in which the government has knocked the power out of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Taylor highlighted that the HSE has been subject to significant funding cuts, leading to the abolition of its Infoline, which used to provide advice to employers in need of guidance on their responsibilities.

In fact, the organisation hired an entire team to go through its website removing phone numbers so people cannot get in touch. Faced with complaints about this move, the body reinstated its helpline as a much smaller operation, but it is so under-resourced it is difficult to get through.

Other HSE workers are also being stretched very thinly, with only one inspector for every 20,000 employers checking workplaces that present a risk of non-nuclear radiation – such as hospitals and airports – despite this kind of exposure causing up to 280 deaths per year.

Taylor said the HSE is “in a fight for survival” and Lofstedt’s report has had little positive effect on the organisation.

Further engagement with workers needed

Billy Baldwin of UCATT took to the podium to present the case for further engagement with workers, suggesting there should be a greater trade union presence in the workplace when it comes to health and safety procedure.

He claimed that “empowerment with responsibility is the key to active engagement” and called for involvement in health and safety processes at all levels of business, with training and individual development allowed for.

“If we want to change the culture, we have to change our methods,” Baldwin argued.

Myth Busting

“Exploding the myths” propagated by right-wing rags like the Daily Mail, where readers are fed absurd stories of ”‘elf and safety gone mad” is one of the keys to moving toward a more progressive attitude to health and safety law, argued Philip Liptrot of Thompsons Solicitors.

He presented details and pictures of cases in which workers have been seriously injured, contrasting these real-life tragedies against some of the flimsy and misleading headlines that regularly appear in the tabloids.

While the public are distracted with outrageous stories of head teachers providing safety goggles so children can play conkers, 20 construction workers die every week of diseases contracted due to exposure to asbestos, Liptrot highlighted.

Meanwhile, only one in every 19 major and fatal injuries are investigated and HSE prosecutions have halved since 2001. The government has put profit ahead of worker safety with a relaxation of the rules on RIDDOR reporting, fewer state inspections, HSE funding being slashed and an increasing number of obstacles put in the way of employees seeking justice through tribunals.

Liptrot claimed trade union action, campaigns, lobbying, legal challenges and, of course, exploding tabloid myths are avenues worth exploring to fight against this assault on health and safety.

Gender inequality in health and safety compliance

What about those businesses that provide the right equipment and safety protocols for men, but fail to properly care for women?

Susan Murray, health and safety officer at UNITE, was one of our final speakers at the Liverpool event and brought a very fresh perspective to the health and safety debate. She highlighted that women are often forced to wear protective clothing designed for men that are ill-fitting and leave them vulnerable to dangers in the workplace.

Meanwhile, female workers also come with their own health and safety considerations that do not apply to men. For instance, are employers ready to support a woman who is plagued by symptoms during the menopause that prevent her from being able to work in the way she once did?

Murray suggested existing equality legislation – including the Public Sector Equality Duty – could be used to push for better health and safety compliance in workplaces and raise awareness of the problems in this area.

For more information on presentations by GMB speakers Daniel Shears and John McClean, who spoke at London and Liverpool respectively, as well as Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling, please see our report on the London conference.

The presentations of most of our Liverpool speakers can also be found here.

For a detailed examination of the undermining of health and safety law, see David Whyte and Steve Tombs’ publication Regulartory Surrender: Death, Injury and the Non-Enforcement of Law.

Interested in attending a forthcoming employment law conference? Click here.

Employment rights and employment law publications including health and safety publications containing detailed expert analysis are also for sale at affordable prices.

Sarah Glenister

Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister Sarah Glenister is the Institute of Employment Rights' IT Development and Communications Assistant.