Blown-up stories of “health and safety gone mad” are providing a useful cover to a government intent on rolling back decades of progress. Nothing, certainly not workers’ lives, can be allowed to get in the way of a good profit...
The government’s recently published review of Health and Safety, the catchily titled “Common Sense Common Safety”, is, paradoxically, a very dangerous document. It presents itself as a necessary antidote to “insane bureaucracy” and a challenge to “the compensation culture”, but reading between the lines, the intent is blindingly obvious. They mean to reverse the gains made by workers in securing regulation and safety in their places of work.
The report uses a familiar blend of popular misconceptions, erroneous conclusions and outright lies to give a veneer of acceptability to its thesis that health and safety mania is strangling British business and stifling entrepreneurship and growth. So it is not banks refusing investment capital, or the government giving preferred bidder status to foreign firms, or employers taking their work abroad then. It’s all the fault of the Health and Safety zealots. Good to get that one out of the way.
Of course stories abound. Many is the collective taproom chuckle at the tale of the egg and spoon race cancellation, or the school forcing children to wear goggles when playing conkers. The point is most such occurrences are blown up out of proportion or fictitious.
During this year’s tennis championships, the Wimbledon club closed “Murray mound” on a rainy day, citing health and safety concerns that people might slip and hurt themselves. This prompted the chair of the Health and Safety Executive to write a stinging open letter condemning the decision, and the ban was promptly rescinded.
Speaking for the government earlier this year, the Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling fulminated against schools making teachers do a 100-plus-page risk assessment before they could walk children to the local park. All righteous indignation, but it simply isn’t true.
Work, the biggest risk
To focus on trivialities, and the eccentric interpretations of some individuals is to miss the point. It’s not in the school playground where people are at greatest risk, but at work. And the sphere of work is just where the review poses the greatest danger. Buried within the report are proposals for a dramatic reduction in proactive regulation – down by a third, a reduction of 11,000 inspections a year – and the introduction of more fees for employers when HSE inspectors find fault.
Unions are understandably alarmed by these developments. Prospect negotiator Mike Macdonald said “...the new strategy shows that health and safety regulation in Britain is now driven by the government‘s wish to cut spending rather than by a professional assessment of what action saves lives and avoids accidents. The key question should be what type of regulation best suits British business and its workforce, not a simplistic dogma that all regulation is bad.”
With fewer workplace inspections, the requirement for employers to take the wellbeing of workers seriously is fatally compromised. Less risk of inspection equals less attention to safety. RMT general secretary Bob Crow hit the nail on the head: “...When ConDem ministers talk about easing regulation what they mean is removing it, and when it comes to health and safety that is a charter for death and injury. There are already far too few workplace inspections and it is already next to impossible to get bosses whose negligence causes injury, death or disease at work to face legal consequences.”
The report recommends that inspections for “low risk” places of employment, shops, offices and schools should be replaced by simple online risk assessments. The harrowing story of Gurmail Singh, 63, who was beaten to death in a Huddersfield convenience shop in February 2010 when he confronted shoplifters, gives the lie to the notion of low risk. Every town in the country will have its own Gurmail Singh.
In construction, there is growing evidence that employers are flouting existing law with impunity, knowing as they do the road the government is travelling down. Construction union UCATT is calling for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to take action. UCATT says its officials have become increasingly alarmed that many employment agencies require construction workers to supply their own personal protective equipment (PPE) or alternatively charge the worker if they supply it. This is against safety regulations, and given growing concerns about fake and counterfeit PPE being available in the construction industry, it places already vulnerable workers at greater risk of injury.
Compromised workplace safety puts the lives of others at risk also. An official investigation found crumbling infrastructure and staffing cuts led to a potentially lethal tube derailment last year. The incident happened between Earl’s Court and Gloucester Road on the Piccadilly line at 5.30am on 12 May 2010.
The Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) report concluded an engineers’ train was derailed because the Tube track was in such poor condition it shifted and collapsed under the weight. Investigators found five steel brackets holding the track were not secured to the sleepers underneath because the screws had broken. The investigation found several sleepers were in poor condition, track faults were not identified and workers had insufficient time to do the repairs.
A portent of the way employers can evade their responsibilities was announced with the decision to drop a health and safety charge against the rail maintenance company Jarvis over the 2002 Potters Bar train crash. Seven people were killed and 76 injured in the Hertfordshire crash when a northbound train derailed at high speed. The rail maintenance section of Jarvis is now in administration, which led the Office of Rail Regulation to conclude that continuing the prosecution would not be in the public interest. The regulator said any trial would be lengthy and costly, and any conviction would lead to only a small financial penalty.
At its heart, this report is part of the attempt to unravel the advances made by workers since they first organised for their own defence. Britain has an envied safety at work record because British workers have demanded it. Since the industrial revolution, when mechanisation transformed production but at the cost of workers’ lives, there has been a constant struggle between employers and their workforce over conditions on the job.
Reforms have been won, but the history of factory and related legislation throughout the 19th century and beyond is the history of employers evading their responsibilities. For every concession won there was a price paid in the blood and shattered limbs of men, women and children working in the mills, mines and factories.
The growing strength of the labour movement ensured that certain unsafe practices were outlawed and safety standards put in place. But workers always had to be vigilant. And to this day, lives are lost at workplaces up and down the country.
Of their very nature, certain types of work are hazardous, as the tragic mine deaths in Swansea valley remind us. But risks can be managed. The nationalisation of the mines brought about a huge reduction in the rate of casualties for pit workers. Now nationalisation and the safety standards that went with it seem a distant memory.
But knowledge lives on. We do not have to relearn the risks associated with gas and electricity, with machinery and explosives. It is well documented. We do, however, have a responsibility to challenge a government that is effectively saying to employers, do away with this safety nonsense.
Oh, and by the way, if British workers won’t work in unsafe conditions, we can guarantee a supply from abroad who may not speak English don’t have the British attitude to safety. The insistence on minimum safety standards and independent inspection is one of the ways in which we still exercise some control over our working day. We can ill afford to see it diluted. ■