Lofstedt Reviewed: When it comes to health and safety, politics can kill

11 May 2012 On the day the Queen’s Speech reiterated the government’s plans to reduce the state inspection of businesses, experts at the IER’s Reviewing Lofstedt conference discussed the human cost of cuts to health and safety.

Commentary icon11 May 2012|Comment

Sarah Glenister

National Development Officer, Institute of Employment Rights

11 May 2012

On the day the Queen’s Speech reiterated the government’s plans to reduce the state inspection of businesses, experts at the IER’s Reviewing Lofstedt conference discussed the human cost of cuts to health and safety.

By Sarah Glenister

A big thank you to everybody who came to our Reviewing Lofstedt event on the future of health and safety legislation at Hamilton House in London recently – we hope you found it as interesting as we did!

The speakers waded through political rhetoric and the populist myths entangled with health and safety law to expose the most important truth – work can kill and make us ill if business is not properly regulated and employers are poorly advised.

The full-day conference kicked off with a speech from Professor Ragnar Lofsedt, author of 2011’s review: “Reclaiming health and safety for all”, which was followed by a lively question and answer session.

Lofstedt explained the process of writing the review, including visiting sites with health and safety inspectors and taking evidence from organisations including the Institute of Employment Rights.

He suggested there needs to be a greater understanding of risk across the UK, rejecting tabloid claims that health and safety legislation has gone too far, and recommending that education be provided to employers, workers and students on the dangers they face.

The professor stressed that health and safety legislation is not holding firms back, but rather is “vital” for corporations. He also made it clear that he recommended the consolidation of regulations by 35% and never mentioned nor endorsed the 50% cuts that have since been mentioned by coalition leaders.

Delegates were also treated to some breaking and exclusive news, with Professor Lofstedt announcing he has been asked to conduct a second review into how the government are implementing his recommendations, and MP Andrew Miller arriving to the conference straight from hearing the Queen’s Speech.

Eight speakers took the stage and gave detailed and thoughtful analysis of the review as well as of the broader health and safety landscape.

Here are some of the themes that emerged on the day:

It could have been worse

The broad conclusion of the day’s event was that the outcome of the Lofstedt Review was not as bad as it could have been, but there is much room for improvement. Several delegates joined speaker Hilda Palmer, of the Hazards Campaign, in calling on the professor to “speak truth to power”, suggesting he is in an excellent position to take the issues concerning trade unions and health and safety campaigners to the top.

But although Lofstedt’s opposition to slashing regulations was welcomed and his emphasis on simplifying and consolidating broadly endorsed, several problems were found with the report.

Political distortion

The influence of politics on health and safety legislation was covered by several speakers, including Professor Lofstedt himself.

He stressed to delegates that he started the review aiming for a “frank and full discussion” that left politics outside of the room. His concern since the publication of his report was that his recommendations have been twisted or ignored by right-wing leaders, who continue to push for strident cuts in health and safety regulations, which the government insists on describing as “red tape”.

But the professor’s claim that he is only interested in making good, scientific, evidence-based recommendations was later brought into question by academics Dr David Whyte of the University of Liverpool and the University of Stirling’s Professor Andrew Watterson.

Whyte described as “reckless” Lofstedt’s practice of making “piecemeal recommendations” without hearing evidence, and questioned why a government that has made its plans to cut health and safety legislation clear “unreservedly” welcomed the review.

Meanwhile, Watterson added that the recommendations were full of “policy-based evidence” rather than evidence-based policy.

Rhetoric and undefined language

One critical point made by Whyte was that the implementation of health and safety legislation is instructed by the government’s designation of workplaces as low or high risk, but these terms have been left undefined, allowing politicians to describe even dangerous areas such as docks and airfields as “low risk” and thus subject to less vigorous regulation.

Steve Cottingham of O H Parsons Solicitors later criticised Lofstedt’s recommendation that the phrase “so far as reasonably practicable” becomes “the key principle at the heart of Great Britain’s health and safety legislation”. He suggested the introduction of this phrase would undermine regulations, detract from the clear understanding of “strict liability” and make it easier for employers to cut corners when it comes to protecting their staff from workplace hazards.

Occupational Health

Another area in which the Loftstedt Review was criticised was in its avoidance of investigating occupational health concerns, including common issues like work-related stress, respiratory diseases and musculoskeletal disorders.

Watterson argued occupational diseases have been the victim of “political neglect” and a “don’t look, don’t find, don’t record” approach that serves to disguise the potentially devastating impact of work on people’s wellbeing.

Hilda Palmer suggested that it is imperative that the “invisible iceberg” of occupational health problems is exposed and the myth busted that work-related illness is rare. She revealed alarming statistics on the number of people suffering and dying from occupational diseases.

Meanwhile, Hugh Robertson, TUC Senior Policy Officer of Health and Safety, said heath and safety was too important to be left in the hands of politicians and he criticised the government for completely ignoring occupational health issues, noting that sickness absence is mostly the result of stress and musculoskeletal disorders. He said the “shelf-life of politicians is less than the shelf-life of cancer”, accusing the government of failing to address long-term problems that may not affect their chance of winning the next election.

The problem of the self-employed

Professor Lofstedt suggested in his keynote speech that self-employed people who pose no risk to the health or lives of others should be exempt from health and safety laws. But several speakers and delegates expressed deep concern with this proposal, noting that “self employment” is a complex legal term, often abused by employers to divest themselves of health and safety responsibilities.

Cottingham described this behaviour as a “scandal”, citing many cases where employers had failed to properly care for “self-employed” staff which ended in successful tribunal claims against the company.

Hugh Robertson, TUC Senior Policy Officer of Health and Safety, stressed that health and safety law should not only be about prosecution for wrongdoing, but also providing guidance to employers and self-employed people and the responsibility for providing this advice should fall on the HSE.

Dan Shears, GMB National Health and Safety Officer, presented a case study involving security workers, who he said are vulnerable to attack yet fail to be compensated for injury due to confusion surrounding employer liability caused by tiers of subcontracting. Shears discussed the work and recent successes of the GMB SafeGuard Charter for security staff.

The Queen’s Speech

Miller brought delegates right up to date by quoting the Queen’s speech – published only hours before – in which it was declared: ”Legislation will be introduced to reduce burdens on business by repealing unnecessary legislation and to limit state inspection of businesses.”

It seems, then, that the government are ploughing ahead with their attempts to deregulate in terms of health and safety and that the warnings made by experts – including those involved in Professor Lofstedt’s Review – have gone unheeded so far.

Hopefully, Lofstedt’s “review of the review” due to start in Autumn 2012 and report in January 2013, will highlight this anomaly, reign in those media moguls and politicians who continue to argue for cuts and confirm the view that rather than health and safety being unaffordable, we cannot afford to continue to cut health and safety.

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 finding out more about the response to the Lofstedt Review? The Reviewing Lofstedt conference will be coming to Liverpool on Tuesday 22nd May. David Whyte and Professor Andrew Watterson will be repeating their speeches alongside a selection of new speakers.

Book and pay for your place online here

Sarah Glenister

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