HSE needs to ground its research in the workplace
Unions have long been critical of the failure of the HSE to regulate and enforce on occupational health risks. For instance we have asked for specific regulations on stress, lower exposure limits on dust and silica, and for the removal of all asbestos in the workplace, but none of these have happened. Now that the HSE have agreed to prioritise the important issues that are making people ill (stress musculoskeletal disorders and lung diseases), it is worth looking at how they get their advice on what particular health hazards they should be targeting and how to tackle them.
A couple of years ago the HSE set up an advisory committee called the Workplace Health Expert Committee (WHEC). This was tasked with producing scientific reports on workplace health issues. It was made up of a number of very prominent researchers and academics, and they have just published their first four reports. These are on stress, silica, health issues of bakers and musculoskeletal disorders.
So how did this new group do? In terms of the reports, they are very readable and informative and, as far as I can tell, address the questions that were asked clearly and fully. They also show that the arguments that unions have been making for years around these issues are borne out.
My problem with them is, not what they say, but more what they don’t say. The report on bakers for instance is excellent, and makes it clear that current exposure limits are not working, not is the enforcement regime, but makes few specific recommendations. Likewise on silica, the report confirms what unions have said that silica can cause lung cancer in people who do not develop the disease silicosis, but makes no recommendation on the issue of the current limit, despite the fact that this limit was not set to prevent lung cancers (and is not even low enough to prevent silicosis).
However, the committee did answer the questions that the HSE asked, and there lies part of the problem. Research only has value if what it reveals is applied. What we need to know is whether the existing exposure limits for silica, and dust, are adequate to prevent ill-health, and if not, what it should be. It is important that, in the future, the committee is given more direction to allow them to make recommendations that will lead to actual benefits.
There is also another problem with the process. When WHEC was set up, I warned that academic research was not enough, you also needed to have the knowledge of the workplace that unions and employers have. They know how the research of groups like WHEC can be applied and know the problems. For instance, in the case of silica, most workplaces do not monitor the air regularly and secondly, in practice, for most workers (and a lot of employers), dust is dust and they have not got a clue what it is made up of. That means that when you look at workplace issues you have to have exposure limits and enforcement action that will prevent exposure to dust in general rather than the individual constituents, which in most cases is unknown.
There used to be a body called ACTS which was made up of academics, unions and employers and which regularly made recommendations aimed at improving standards. Often, as with dust and silica, these were not acted on by the HSE, which may be why it was abolished.
I think that the WHEC reports show that, if you exclude workplace representatives, you allow the HSE to operate in a bubble that is 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, by ensuring that there is a role for unions and employers.