HSE workers from the Prospect and PCS unions protest against cuts to safety inspections at the TUC's 2011 London march. Photo: Quiznovus
Safety inspections are a requirement, not an option says ILO.
The International Labour Organisation, which sets international regulations on a range of employment and health and safety issues has just considered a case that could have ramifications for the British Government’s inspection policies.
Last month they issued a report on a complaint by Dutch trade unionists that the Dutch Government had failed to comply with a number of ILO conventions because of cuts and reorganisation to their state inspection bodies to the extent that an effective inspectorate no longer existed.
They claimed that the limited capacity and work pressure of inspectors meant they had insufficient time to maintain the necessary levels of knowledge to keep up with new risks, that inspections were falling to a level which meant there was no longer an effective inspectorate, the medical inspectorate had been reduced to one single medical officer, and as a result of these cuts, employers had to rely on consultants or other organisations and insurance companies.
Does that all sound familiar? In the UK two thirds of the HSE inspected workforce have no proactive inspections, and in the local authority sector the number of inspections have fallen by 95% in four years. The medical service have been reduced from 60 doctors to 2.2 and the HSE now expects trade bodies to develop most new guidance.
The Conventions in question are those dealing with Labour inspections, agriculture inspections and occupational health and safety. Unlike the Netherlands, Britain has only ratified one of these conventions (the one relating to Labour Inspections, and even that only the part relating to industry) but it is required to abide by it. That convention (No 81) states that “Workplaces shall be inspected as often and as thoroughly as is necessary to ensure the effective application of the relevant legal provisions”. Other parts deal with inspectors independence, training, access to advice, and provision of local offices.
The ILO have now considered the complaints and, while they rejected some, have ruled that the Dutch Government have broken the law in respect of a number of others. They single out those dealing with the number and frequency of inspections, the amount of admin and lack of support for inspectors and the system for notification of occupational diseases. In addition the ILO stressed the importance on unannounced inspections. The specific wording was that the ILO told the Dutch “in accordance with Articles 10 and 16 of the Convention, to ensure that the number and frequency of labour inspections is sufficient to ensure the effective discharge of inspection duties and compliance with the respective legal provisions in all workplaces, particularly in enterprises that are not considered to be in high-risk sectors and in small enterprises” and “ The Committee considers that unannounced labour inspections should be made to ensure that when inspections are conducted as a result of a complaint, the confidentiality of the complaint can be ensured.”
While there are differences between the Dutch, and UK systems and the Dutch complaint was wider that just the single convention that the UK has ratified, many of the arguments used by the Dutch trade unionists apply equally or even more so in the UK, where the Coalition Government has slashed inspections, while at the same time reducing the number of HSE offices and level of support available.
The Dutch Government has been told to put their house in order. We will be asking the UK Government to do the same.