Health and safety issues spun into myths to blind workers of danger

22 February 2013 By Sarah Glenister, IER Staff This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at what has been learned from the Coalition Timeline so far.

Commentary icon22 Feb 2013|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

22 February 2013

By Sarah Glenister, IER Staff

This is the fifth in a series of articles looking at what has been learned from the Coalition Timeline so far.

Earlier in this series, it has been shown how the spinning of stories in the right-wing press has helped to bolster the ideology the Coalition needs to prevail if it is to garner support for its anti-worker policies. Health and safety regulation is one of the key areas in which it is possible to see this propagation of convenient myths. A cursory search on the Daily Mail website brings up stories implying that the “health and safety police” are on a rampant campaign to ban people from collecting firewood, coddle them as they drink coffee, and even seal up good old British postboxes. But this ridiculous onslaught of tabloid fluff only drives attention away from the real dangers of the workplace, and from the real need for strong health and safety legislation and enforcement.

As soon as the Coalition took power, it began to chip away at health and safety by asking former secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s government Lord Young to review legislation. The government accepted the Lord’s recommendations to reduce both regulations and their enforcement and, in March 2011, published its new strategy toward health and safety – “Good Health and Safety, Good For Everyone”. The Coalition announced that it would reduce the enforcement of health and safety regulation by labelling as “low-risk” a wide ranging number of industries, including some areas that most would rightly think as hazardous (such as docks, airfields, agriculture, emergency services, electricity generation, quarries, manufacturing and healthcare). These “low-risk” workplaces will no longer be proactively inspected. That means, they will not be inspected until an accident occurs.

The following year, in March 2012, the Coalition set up its Focus on Enforcement website, which had a similar function to the Red Tape Challenge website that preceded it: to provide a forum for the public to comment on which regulations they would like to be scrapped. The Focus on Enforcement website, however, looked specifically at inspection practices with the end goal of reducing inspections of workplaces.

In September last year, Business Secretary Vince Cable announced the final nail in the coffin for proactive inspections of those workplaces designated (seemingly at random) as “lower risk”, by announcing plans to actually outlaw the practice, except where businesses have a track record of a “poor performance” (i.e. deaths and injuries on their sites).

Alongside legislating for less enforcement, the government has simultaneously been weakening the Health and Safety Executive. In March 2011, harsh cuts to the body’s funding forced it to reduce the number of unannounced investigations it carried out on workplaces. Then in August 2012, Howard Shiplee, Executive Director of Laing O’Rourke – a construction company known for using blacklists to vet employees for trade union activity – was appointed to the HSE.

Professor Ragnar Löfstedt was also asked to review British health and safety legislation, and he published his review “Reclaiming Health and Safety for All” in November 2011. The academic reported that significant cuts in health and safety regulations were not needed, but questioned the necessity for strict liability for employers in all situations which it currently applies. The government took this statement of concern as an excuse to remove employers’ 114-year-old liability for the welfare of their staff altogether, slipping an amendment, undebated, into the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill at report stage. If this amendment comes to pass, injured workers will have to prove employer negligence – a difficult feat to achieve when it is the employers who hold all the information that could prove whether they are negligent or not.

And so the government, in less than three years, has cut health and safety regulation, limited enforcement of that legislation for a huge swathe of businesses and organisations, cut the funding to the inspectors, and made it far more difficult for employees to seek justice or compensation if they are involved in a workplace accident.

The Coalition says it is tackling a “compensation culture” that has grown out of the availability of personal injury law services and no-win, no-fee deals, but this justification was shot out of the water when the proposal was debated in the House of Lords.

Baroness Turner of Camden noted that the insurance company – which she has experience of as a former employee herself – is not so soft that it would make payouts for just any claim. In fact, it will attempt to avoid making payments altogether, so a claim has to be extremely strong for anyone to receive compensation. What’s more, Lady Browne of Ladyton pointed out that even an impact assessment from the HSE dated June 2012 found that “the ‘compensation culture’ (or the perception of it) in the UK has been subject to several reviews over the last few years, but no clear evidence has been presented for its existence”.

It has also been argued by the government that the health and safety cuts are necessary to reduce bureaucratic burden on businesses, but this excuse also does not hold water. In his review, Professor Löfstedt – the recommendations of whom the government insists it is following – clearly reported that there was not a need for significant cuts in health and safety legislation. Rather, he said there is a trend for overcompliance to health and safety regulations by businesses, borne out of a fear of the “compensation culture”, which – as discussed – does not necessarily exist.

Essentially, the research the government commissioned shows that the only burden on businesses is one they have put on themselves. They are being unduly cautious when it comes to health and safety concerns because they have misunderstood the legislation. Better education and guidance for businesses, then, would remove this burden – not taking away perfectly good legislation that has been shown not to be a burden in and of itself.
So if all of the government’s justifications for the removal of health and safety legislation and enforcement can be easily disproven, then what could be driving the Coalition’s policy apart from an anti-worker ideological that puts profit over people?

Click here to visit the Timeline. In order to see just health and safety stories click the spanner in the bottom left of the timeline, select ‘categories’, then select ‘Health and Safety’.

Click here to see more articles from this series

Sarah Glenister

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