Today – the day after Congress rejected the government’s pursuit of a ‘weakened health and safety regime’, Vince Cable has announced plans to get rid of 3,000 regulations and also scrap health and safety inspections for “Shops, offices, pubs and clubs.”
There is no detail on what these 3,000 regulations are, but it looks like it is simply those that were already identified by the “Red Tape Challenge”. Likewise the announcement on inspections seems no different from the announcement by Chris Grayling in March last year that he was instructing the HSE to do exactly that.
So, if this is just a statement repeating what has already been announced should we be worried?
The simple answer is, ‘Yes’. It is easy to say that this is just “spin” – and the fact that BIS are taking a firm hold of the deregulation agenda means that some of the more ridiculous proposals on employment law are likely to be ditched. But it also shows that the anti-regulation health and safety bashing that has become standard tabloid fodder has gained an echo in government.
The proposal also seems to be going further than the previous proposal to stop the HSE making “pro-active” inspections. This was not legally binding, and did not apply to local authorities, but from April 2013 there will be “binding new rules on both the Health & Safety Executive and on local authorities that will exempt hundreds of thousands of businesses from burdensome, regular health & safety inspections.” The announcement goes on to say “In future, businesses will only face health and safety inspections if they are operating in higher risk areas such as construction, or if they have an incident or a track record of poor performance.”
This shows that the government can completely lost the plot when it comes to regulation, and the effect on workers will be disastrous.
Firstly the idea that offices, shops etc. are low risk is a myth that could be exposed simply looking at the figures. By claiming that these sectors are low risk the government is only looking at injury figures rather than the whole picture. Many of these areas have very high levels of sickness caused by work. For instance postal workers are far more likely to suffer from a back injury because of the loads they have to carry. Supermarkets also have high levels of back pain amongst checkout staff, and injuries from slips. In addition, shop-workers face high levels of violence. Workers in education suffer high levels of stress, as do many other public sector workers including many who work in health and social care.
Secondly, it is not true that inspections are a “burden”. Almost 90% of employers who are visited by the HSE say it is a positive experience.
But most importantly, inspections save lives. TUC research shows that employers are more likely to make changes in the workplace simply because they know that the workplace might be inspected, while an analysis in the current issue of “Hazards Magazine” shows a clear link between inspections and safety levels. As inspections go down, injuries go up. This has also been illustrated by research in the US. Even the HSE’s own research shows that the need to comply with the law is the biggest motivator for employers to change their behaviour.
Unions are not against change. Most of the health and safety regulations that have been repealed in the past 10 years have been got rid of with the support of the unions. After all we don’t want out-of date or complex rules. We want simple clear effective laws that employers and safety representatives can understand. We are also pretty comfortable with the idea that inspections should be targeted at where they can do most good, but often that means warehouses, or schools. However the bottom line is that every employer should know that there is a chance of an inspector walking through the door at any time.
Regulations on health and safety were not made for the protection of employers, they were meant to protect workers, yet the Governments attack on health and safety laws destroying the consensus that has existed around health and safety for the last 40 years.
However what is also important is the message that the government is giving to employers. It is saying that the laws are unnecessary and do not matter. That health and safety is not important and there is no need for rules and regulations, and even where there are no-one is going to check whether you are obeying them. That will mean that more and more workers will be put at risk, made ill and killed or injured at work.