HSE hits the right note
For many years the TUC has been arguing that successive governments have abandoned the health aspect of health and safety.
Over 70% of work-related absence is a result of stress or musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain, while, even by the HSE’s own statistics, there are 12,000 deaths every year as a result of occupational cancers or lung disease, as against 144 workers killed in the workplace last year.
All the evidence is that the cuts in funding to the HSE and changes to the inspection regime that we have seen over the last seven years have disproportionately impacted on the health agenda.
During the previous decade the HSE was at the cutting edge of work on both stress and MSDs, with the internationally acclaimed stress management standards and various tool kits for dealing with RSI and back-pain, while on cancers they were running high profile campaigns such as the “hidden Killer” initiative. This work was making an impact and there was a consistent fall in work-related ill-health during that period. This all ground to a halt after 2010 when health seemed to fall to the bottom of the pile. It is therefore hardly surprising that the reductions in ill-health that we had seen, slowed down and stopped. If anything the number of cases now seems to be going up again.
At the TUC we have argued strongly for an evidence-based approach from the HSE in terms of the areas it addresses both through advice guidance and support, and also through enforcement, and that means putting the emphasis on the risks that are effecting workers the most such as cancers, stress and back or limb pain.
Well, it now looks as through the HSE is taking this on board. They have a new draft health and work strategy that says much of what we have been saying for years. The strategy identifies three areas that the HSE will be prioritising in the coming years. These are stress, musculoskeletal disorders and occupational lung diseases, including mesothelioma, lung cancer and asthma.
By doing so they are addressing three areas that are responsible for the vast majority of occupational sickness and death, and which are also three of the leading priorities for union health and safety representatives. Stress in particular, is the top issue dealt with by representatives in every sector and every region.
So what will that mean in practice? Hopefully it will mean that more support will be given to employers who need to prevent these, and those that do not want to engage will face enforcement action. The draft strategy certainly seems to point that way with a commitment to focus inspection and enforcement activity where it can have the most effect. It also promises a strong research agenda.
The HSE says it will work with bodies such as Public Health England and the Department of Health to ensure that issues such as stress and musculoskeletal disorders are included in wider health issues but they have made it clear that the work they are doing will focus on prevention in the workplace, not issues such as resilience.
The strategy is still at an early stage and it is unclear what resources will be available to fund it but the HSE have already started working with unions at a national and local level on some issues. On stress for instance, they have published a new stress guide for health and safety representatives jointly with the TUC, and they are working with the teaching unions to develop pilots for stress interventions in schools.
Hopefully we will see more of that kind of initiative as the strategy develops. Certainly unions are keen to get back to joint working with the HSE, and supportive employers, so that we can see positive gains for our members.