RoSPA’s reaction to the DWP minister’s speech

Like me, many of you will have been considering the announcement made by Department for Work and Pensions minister, Chris Grayling. I attended the Round Table event on March 21 with key players from the health and safety community, to find out more about the future of health and safety. Called “Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone”, it outlines a series of steps to be taken by his department.

He said that proactive health and safety inspections by the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) would be a cut by at least a third, with future targeted inspections focusing on “high risk” locations, such as major hazard facilities and on “rogue employers”. In future, such rogue employers would have to pay the cost of HSE investigations into their activities (fee-for-fault) if these showed them to be in breach of health and safety law. His statement also covered the successful launch of the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (OSHCR) and the simplification of risk assessment for SMEs via a new online advice package for small and “low risk” employers.

And he announced that there is to be a(nother) major review of health and safety law by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt of Kings College London, with a view to simplification and the scrapping of unnecessary requirements and clarifying “the legal position of employers in cases where employees act in a grossly irresponsible manner”.

At one level there seemed to be a shift in tone towards recognition of the importance of health and safety to people and to business success. On the other hand much of what Mr Grayling said seemed to focus on accidents rather than the much bigger problem of occupational health. And he repeated many of the ideas underpinning the Lord Young Review such as “changing the health and safety culture that causes so much frustration in Britain today”.

What was interesting, though, was the strong emphasis Mr Grayling put on levelling the playing field for all businesses through the HSE getting tough with offenders. The flip side of this, of course, is that the Government is cutting the HSE’s resources by 35 per cent by 2014-15. Inevitably this will put them in a much more reactive position with fewer resources devoted to proactive interventions, whether through inspection or education.

The announcement contained the news that in the future, proactive inspection will cease in sectors such as agriculture, quarries, and health and social care where it is not thought to be effective, and that in many “lower risk” areas it will end altogether. The HSE is also having to scale back much of its information and awareness-raising work.

The minister repeated the key message in Lord Young’s review (with which we all agree of course) about the need for proportionality in relation to risk but he did not really spell out the cost of health and safety failures to the UK economy – up to three per cent of GDP – nor indeed the massive business case for good health and safety performance at company level and its potential contribution to business recovery.

He also seemed to reflect some of the other erroneous assumptions underpinning that Review, namely that businesses in the service sector are mainly “low hazard” and thus need only a light touch and that health and safety performance is mainly about reducing the reportable injuries figures (and not the much greater problem of cutting underlying work-related mortality and morbidity).

Focusing on RIDDOR notifiable injuries as the prime performance indicator tends to obscure the true extent of work-related death, injury and ill health including, for example, work-related road injuries (which are about five times higher than those recorded in RIDDOR), deaths due to work-related health damage (particularly from asbestos where many thousands more are expected to die with no immediate decline in sight) and the huge toll of work-related ill health (due especially to musculoskeletal disorders and stress).

And the suggestion that health and safety risks are less significant in “low hazard” workplaces while true in one sense, tends to gloss over the fact there are still lots of important issues that need to be properly managed in these settings: for example, in schools, shops and offices.

One of the issues which seems to be exercising industry most is the idea of the HSE adopting “fee-for-fault” cost recovery. This is not a system of administrative penalties related to the seriousness of any breach, but is designed to recover the costs involved in serving improvement notices needed to remedy breaches in order to control significant risks.

In many ways it simply follows the long-established principle in the environmental field that the polluter should pay. On the other hand, concerns are being raised in various quarters about whether this system might skew the HSE’s operational priorities or adversely affect its relationship with duty holders. And there could well be accusations in the popular press that the HSE is just chasing employers to raise revenue for the Government.

There are dangers here of course: the HSE will need to feel its way. But in my view fee-for-fault cost recovery is not the real issue. The far greater challenge for the health and safety community is how to come up with creative ideas to help make good the reduction in the HSE’s awareness-raising and educational role.

The Government’s critics seem to be focusing all their commentary at present on the HSE’s investigation and enforcement capacity (for example, the BBC R4 programme “File on 4” on March 7).

Enforcement is critically important. But my own view is that the fundamental value of education and awareness-raising in reducing casualties at work is being overlooked. Some have only ever seen it as a bolt-on to the HSE’s regulatory role while many of their critics take the view that it is not really effective anyway.

The HSE already works with a range of partners but we at RoSPA believe that developing an even closer partnership with us, the groups, the trade associations and the various professional bodies would produce great results and also avoid much of the bureaucracy and overkill which the Government fears can result from an unprofessional approach.

So while obviously we may need to debate issues arising from reduced inspections, the new fee-for-fault system and the Loftstedt review, filling the awareness-raising, information and advisory gap is actually critical too.

If we are to sustain the improvements in performance which have been made in recent years, all of us in the health and safety community now need to work together to boost a proactive approach to health and safety. People’s lives and health depend on it.

Roger Bibbings

RoSPA’s Occupational Safety Adviser

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