Deregulation = complication?

The Government has this week published its draft Deregulation Bill, which aims to free up UK businesses from red tape. However, the Government is doing this to create the impression that it is reducing a burden on the self-employed, but it is a perceived “burden” rather than one that exists in work-a-day reality.

Instead of sticking with the existing Health and Safety at Work Act duties and approaches to enforcement, which are proportionate to risk (the higher the level of risk, the more you have to do to be safe – or the more likely you are to be inspected), the Government is exempting whole sets of ostensibly “low risk” businesses. Some of those being made exempt from the scope of health and safety law altogether are self-employed people.

At present, the law in effect requires self-employed people to consider if there is anything risky about what they do and then decide on the level of precautions they need to take to protect themselves and others.

Inspectors too have to consider the risks posed by higher risk self-employed people, like window cleaners, and prioritise poorly performing ones for attention.

Under the current system, if their work does not involve substantial risks then the action required of self-employed people is actually very little, if anything. Now in the name of deregulation, the Government is actually complicating things by requiring the self-employed to work out, not if there is a significant risk, but if they are inside or outside the terms of exemption.

In other words, they will have to establish if they work inside or outside the boundaries of certain higher risk industries such as construction or agriculture, where duties on the self-employed will still apply. Or they will have to establish if at certain points their work involves them working with others or puts other people at risk.

Roger Bibbings, RoSPA's occupational safety adviser.

Roger Bibbings, RoSPA’s occupational safety adviser.

Not only is following this sort of algorithm going to be much more complicated than the way the law stands at present, but there is a real danger that it will send out a message that self-employed people don’t have to follow safety rules at all and can ignore precautions that people in bigger companies still have to follow. And it may make it much harder for responsible businesses to manage the health and safety of their self-employed contractors.

If you work on your own from home using a computer, for example, as it stands health and safety law poses no real burden. No inspector is going to visit you, even if you have an accident.

On the other hand, if you do choose to work on your own in this way, using a bit of common sense to stay safe still makes very good business acumen. You cannot afford to have time off injured for just one day.  So law or no law, having an eye to basic home safety may actually help keep you and your family out of the local A&E (In 2002, 2.7 million people attended A&E every year as result of a home accident, and this figure will certainly have increased since then as A&E attendances in England have doubled in the decade leading up to 2011/12). And if your job takes you out onto the road, then although thankfully casualty figures are dropping, safety is still very important indeed.

I suspect that this legal change is more about political symbolism and less about safety substance. Effective safety education to help people understand real risks is still the real answer, whatever size business you are.

If you are interested in more information and articles on occupational safety and health issues, visit Safety Gone Sane’s sister site, Workplace Safety Blog.

Roger Bibbings, occupational safety adviser at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA).

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