Safety cuts: Chipping away at tripartitism
According to papers produced by the HSE, it is considering closing down a number of committees where it gets advice from a range of people including unions and employers. Two of these committees deal with toxic substances and have been instrumental in developing the HSE’s policy on a range of hazards, including asbestos.
One committee, called WATCH (which deals with chemicals) has already been told it has been disbanded, while, according to reports from the HSE, its parent body, the Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances, appears also to be under threat in its current form.
It appears that the plan is to replace the committee with “experts” such as academics. You might ask who could argue against that. Well I certainly can. I have no problem with academics. I think they do a fantastic job. They research a subject and come up with conclusions based on the evidence they find which can then help inform policy making. However that does not mean that these “experts” are the best people to actually recommend policy. Often they only see one part of the picture, but more problematic is that they may have no knowledge of what is actually happening in the workplace. They are also, it has to be said, often reliant on the government, or bodies such as the HSE, for much of the funding for their work.
So why should unions and employers be on these bodies? Well simply because they act as brokers for the experience of their members in the workplace. Often they identify issues years before the academics can show conclusively there is a health problem. Asbestos is a case in point but silica, wood dust and a wide range of other products have been identified as problem areas by unions long before academics had the evidence to “prove” there was harm being caused. Because a disease can manifest itself many years after exposure, by the time it shows up in studies, thousands of people may have been exposed. Unions believe in the “precautionary principle” which is that to take action on the basis that there may be a risk until proven otherwise.
Dust is another example. In the workplace there are a range of products that can cause lung problems if inhaled. Each of them may have a different level of toxicity. Academics can set different standards for each of them based on the level of harm. However, in setting limit values, unions know two things. Firstly, most workplaces do not monitor the air regularly and secondly, in practice, for most workers, dust is dust and they have not got a clue what it is made up of. That means you have to have awareness and enforcement campaigns based on preventing exposure to dust in general rather than the individual constituents, which in most cases is unknown.
It is because of the knowledge of the workplace that employer and union representatives are so valuable. They have certainly proved their worth in the past on a range of HSE bodies and many of the most effective bodies dealing with occupational health are based on the “tripartite” union/employer/government model. The Industrial Injuries Advisory Council has four union and four employer representatives, as well as half a dozen academics, and that works very well. The EU has an advisory committee on occupational diseases made up of three employer, three union and three government representatives, with academics brought in as necessary. The UN body that sets international standards, the ILO, has a panel of experts made up of union, government and employer representatives. If these work, then why is the HSE trying to change things? Is it perhaps that they do not always like the advice they are getting? ACTS have consistently called for tighter standards on a range of hazardous substances with union representatives supported by the employers only to have their conclusions ignored by the HSE.
If you exclude workplace representatives, you create a bubble filed with technocrats who are divorced from the reality of working lives. Instead we should accept that academics have a major role (and give them proper funding for work on occupational health) and use their research to apply to the very real problems we have in the workplace today. ACTS and WATCH have been doing that pretty well to date, so let’s not throw it all away.