Protecting apprentices in the workplace
In January 2013, a 16 year old engineering apprentice, Cameron Minshull, tragically lost his life after becoming entangled in a lathe. Prosecutors in Cameron’s case alleged that his employer used apprentices as “cheap labour”, had a history of failing to train them properly and had a “grossly unsafe” system of work. Yesterday, the employer was found guilty of corporate manslaughter and fined £150,000. The sole director of the company was imprisoned for 8 months for failing to ensure the safety of an employee. The training provider responsible for placing Cameron was also found guilty of failing to ensure the safety of someone not in their employment and fined £75,000.
The agency placing Cameron reportedly received a £4,500 government grant for doing so. The UK-based agency used a call centre in Tenerife where they cold called employers trying to find placements for apprentices. It is alleged that they did nothing to ensure that the work was suitable for an apprentice and did not carry out a health and safety assessment at the workplace. The agency did not attend the court hearing to offer any form of defence.
This cost cutting and exploitative approach, adopted by both employer and provider, resulted in the tragic and needless death of a young man who was hoping to pursue a career in engineering. It has devastated his family.
This is not an isolated incident. Over the last year, many other apprentices have suffered injuries at work and some have lost their lives. However, neither the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) nor the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) keeps records of how many apprentices are injured at work.
In the last few weeks an electrical contractor has been fined for breaching health and safety standards, after an apprentice in his employment was electrocuted. In September, following a HSE investigation which found inadequate safety precautions at a building site, a three day hearing has been scheduled to hear whether a company is culpable for the death of a young man falling from scaffolding.
Apprentices must be able to learn new skills in a safe environment. Apprentices are especially vulnerable to health and safety risks as they are working in unfamiliar environments, often with unfamiliar equipment. Young workers suffer proportionately far more deaths and injuries than older workers. Health and safety risks to apprentices are increased where employers and providers look to misuse the Apprenticeship programme to save money, rather than offer a young person a supportive, high quality training experience. The wilful recklessness demonstrated by the employer, and provider who placed Cameron, highlights the need for drastic improvements in workplace health and safety standards.
Apprenticeship numbers are likely to significantly increase due to the introduction of an apprenticeship levy and a target of 3m apprenticeship starts over the next 5 years. While the TUC welcomes the levy (which will make all large employers pay their fair share) and the drive for more apprentices there is widespread concern that an unfettered drive to reach the 3m target will prioritise quantity over quality. This surge in apprenticeship starts will take place at a time when health and safety standards have been significantly scaled back over the last 5 years. HSE state funding was cut by over 40% over the last parliamentary term. Proactive HSE investigations into many sectors (including engineering, the sector where Cameron was employed) have been halted and there is no requirement to report health and safety incidents specifically relating to Apprentices. The last government also removed the requirement for employers to show they had a proper health and safety policy in place before apprentices were placed.
It is clear that further action must be taken to reduce and eliminate the health and safety risks that young apprentices face and to help prevent further tragedies and better protect apprentices in the workplace, the TUC recommends that:
- Employers and providers must provide evidence of a comprehensive health and safety risk assessment prior to any funding being drawn down by the SFA
- Employers and providers must have a proper health and safety policy in place, which is discussed as part of the apprentices induction process
- Apprentice H&S incidents should be reported to the SFA, who can work with the HSE to investigate/monitor incidents and promptly remove funding and cease to work with a particular employer/provider where necessary. These records should be published regularly
- An investigation should take place into the actions of the training provider and its subsidiary company, the agency, which was responsible for placing Cameron Minshull
However, the best protection for apprentices is to become members of trade unions and for workplaces to have strong trade union organisation, including the involvement of union reps in assessing and preventing health and safety risks. To help achieve that, we will be publishing new guidance for union workplace representatives on how to support apprentices in the workplace and ensure that they are kept safe.