Workplace safety enforcement in freefall
I have just read a paper that was produced a couple of months ago on health and safety inspections conducted by Local Authorities.
They inspect the majority of workplaces, including most offices, shops, warehouses, distribution centres, leisure centres, care homes etc. They are often considered to be “low risk” but the reality is very different. Often warehouses have a very high injury rate, and some sectors like nail bars and hairdressers have massive rates of occupational disease (mainly skin and lung).
Local authority inspectors also have a reputation of being willing to take enforcement action in areas where the HSE might not, such as stress, while some local councils have been willing to run very effective campaigns over local concerns.
However, when the Government ordered the HSE to stop pro-active inspections in a range of areas, they also gave the HSE the power to order local authorities to follow suit through a national enforcement code. Amongst other things, it said that proactive inspection must only be used to target the high risk activities in those sectors specified on a list produced by the HSE or where intelligence suggests risks are not being effectively managed. This list was very narrow and ignored all industrial diseases except legionella, e coli and, in selected industrial premises, noise and dust. It did not even include asbestos, or stress, or most of the other causes of ill-health.
The new report outlines that this has meant that the number of proactive inspections has fallen by 95% in five years. The position is now so bad that 83 local councils reported doing no proactive inspections at all. This is not because they are now doing more reactive inspections after a reported injury or a complaint. Both of these have also fallen. Visits to investigate an accident fell by 47% and visits after a complaint by 28%.
This fall seems to be seen as good news by the HSE who say that only a small number of councils are not “aligned” with the HSE’s enforcement code. However, in the report it also raises a few concerns. One is that the businesses themselves are expressing concerns over the competency of staff. This is hardly surprising if they are doing so few (remember that most LA enforcement officers also do a range of other inspections such as food safety). The HSE states that if this competency continues to decline it could lead to “a failure to effectively enforce the law, burdens on business and negative public perception”. It also says “Any further reductions may make the current model untenable”.
One problem that has already arisen is that the Scottish official that deals with prosecutions, the Procurator Fiscal, has complained that the quality of Local Authority investigations are causing problems proceeding with prosecution cases. That is pretty worrying.
But of course not anywhere near as worrying as the effect on health and safety. A couple of years ago the TUC published an information sheet which outlined the importance of inspections in reducing injury rates. By reducing inspections to a level whereby they are virtually irrelevant to most employers, we risk seeing an increase in injury and illness rates, and of course, those employers who do break the law and risk the health and safety of their workers are getting a free pass.