Is health and safety being weakened?
Recently-published annual statistics by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) suggest that some of the great progress in workplace health and safety that has been made since it began its work is being compromised by the reckless culture being advanced by the coalition government.
The 2013-14 statistics indicate that, while the rate of fatal incidents in British workplaces remained on its long-term downward slope last year, the long-term decline in non-fatal injuries has slowed.
And the number of new cases of work-related illness, such as stress and musculoskeletal disorders, turned abruptly upwards in 2013-14.
TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the figures “should be a wake-up call demanding stronger regulation and enforcement for rogue bosses who put their staff at risk”.
The Health and Safety Statistics: Annual Report for Great Britain 2013-14 is compiled using the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 (RIDDOR), the government’s Labour Force Survey and other sources.
One of the key statistics in the mass of figures presented is the 77,593 non-fatal injuries reported by employers under the RIDDOR in 2013-14. On the face of it, this is some way below the 80,368 injuries reported in 2012-13.
However, the drop is not steep enough to maintain previous levels of improvement in the figures and indicates a slowing of improvement rates. And, in fact, the position is rather worse than that — the fall in injury figures could be a mirage. This is because the latest figure excludes a range of injuries which would have been included the previous year.
The law on reporting injuries was weakened during the latest period (in October 2013) so that some major injuries which used to be recorded under RIDDOR no longer have to be reported.
Construction union UCATT lists a range of incidents which might no longer be reported, including temporary loss of eyesight and loss of consciousness due to inhaling or absorbing a substance.
The change followed a previous diminution of the reporting duty, which meant only accidents requiring the worker to be off work for seven days, rather than three days, had to be reported.
The HSE report states that: “Allowing for these changes, there may be signs the downward trend (in non-fatal injuries) over the past 10 years is slowing down.”
This interpretation is corroborated by a count of “self-reported” non-fatal injuries measured separately by the government’s Labour Force Survey which questions workers themselves. The HSE notes that these too “have generally followed a downward trend over the last 10 years or so, but show signs of levelling off in recent years.”
Work-related ill health
The other key worrying statistic in the annual report relates to work-related ill health.
Again the trends are difficult to decipher, but on the measure that can be compared year on year — “new cases of self-reported work-related illness” — the figures are not encouraging.
“They show that well over half a million people reported a new case of work-related illness in 2013-14 — a rise of 83,000 on the previous year.
The HSE report states: “New cases of ill health have generally fallen since 2001-02, reaching a low of 452,000 in 2011-12 … but in 2013-14 the number of new cases increased to 535,000, a similar level to that in 2009-10.”
HSE chair Judith Hackitt said that the health numbers “demonstrate the scale of harm being done to people’s health while at work, too often leading to premature death”.
The figures for new cases of ill-health are dominated by two categories — stress, depression or anxiety and musculoskeletal disorders. The estimates for stress, depression or anxiety have remained “broadly flat for more than a decade”, says the HSE, but the figure is up from 221,000 in 2011-12 (the last available figure) to 244,000 in the latest year.
The increase in musculoskeletal disorders is more pronounced, having risen from 141,000 in 2011-12 to 184,000 in 2013-14.
Sarah Page, health and safety officer at the HSE inspectors’ union, Prospect, feels the rise in these conditions is because of “widespread neglect by employers to proactively manage work-related stress”. She also blames “aggressive sickness absence and performance management systems”.
Meanwhile, TUC senior policy officer for health and safety Hugh Robertson points out that the HSE used to put considerable effort into preventing issues of stress and musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain and RSI.
He told Labour Research: “We were beginning to see the results with a consistent fall in cases of both of these. That however has changed, and the rise in numbers is the inevitable effect.”
Drastic reduction in enforcement
On the statistics overall, Robertson says that while it is important not to read too much into one year’s figures, “it is very likely that we are beginning to see the results of the government-forced changes to inspection regimes and the cuts in the HSE and local authority budgets”. The cuts he is referring to are detailed in the TUC’s 2014 report, Toxic, corrosive and hazardous — the government’s record on health and safety. They include a reduction in the HSE’s employed staff from 3,702 in April 2010 to 2,769 December 2013.
Meanwhile, central government funding for English local authorities, who are joint regulators of workplace health and safety with the HSE, was cut by 40%. This has led to cuts in local authority inspections of more than 90%.
These cuts may lie behind further worrying figures set out in the HSE’s annual statistical report — those on enforcement. They show that in 2013-14 the HSE prosecuted just 551 cases in England and Wales — 5% fewer than in 2012-13 — while local authorities prosecuted 88 cases — a fall of 16%.
Susan Murray, national health and safety advisor for general union Unite, also says that “huge cuts to the funding of health and safety regulators” leading to a “drastic reduction in enforcement” lie behind the worrying new injury and ill-health statistics, adding that “enforcement is known to be a powerful driver for compliance”.
The Conservative-led coalition’s negative attitude to regulation, particularly health and safety law, is also part of the problem. Murray said: “Tory ministerial attacks such as wanting to ‘kill off health and safety culture for good’ and ‘red tape’ send a dangerous message to some employers who may now think they do not need to do anything to protect their staff.”
Similarly, UCATT says that the mantra that “safety laws are needless red tape” means that laws are ignored and bypassed and accidents occur. In addition, the construction industry is coming out of recession, when there is always a rush to finish one project and start the next one. This “leads to corners being cut and a huge increase in accidents and fatalities“, the union says.
Unions also point the finger at the coalition government’s cessation of proactive HSE and local authority inspections in industries considered to be “low risk”. These include transport, education, health and social care — but the HSE statistics show that these are precisely the industries with what the report calls “statistically significantly higher” than average rates of ill health.
Sarah Lyons, principal officer at the NUT teachers’ union, says this is the key policy change negatively affecting health and safety in the schools sector and needs to be reversed to avoid a further rise in accident and illness figures.
How to get back on course
So what else could be done to stem the increase in injury and illness and return to the long-term downward trend?
UCATT general secretary Steve Murphy reflected the views of all unions when he said: “We need to stop the cuts to the HSE and create a dynamic enforcement regime which is able to properly police industry. Companies must realise that if they break safety laws they will be prosecuted.”
From the perspective of his own industry he added: “In the longer-term we need the introduction of statutory directors’ duties so that if a worker is killed or seriously injured and a company has been shown to have acted recklessly then an individual director can be charged with the possibility of a prison sentence.
“The construction industry will wake up to safety when a director is led away to jail.”
Unite’s Susan Murray said that employers and government should recognise the positive and proactive part played by trade unions and union safety representatives and engage actively and constructively with them with a view to preventing occupational injuries and ill-health.
The TUC’s Hugh Robertson also pointed to the key role of union representatives in improving health and safety, but noted that they are finding it increasingly difficult to get the time off to do this job — especially in the public sector.
He added that the only way to get injury and ill health rates back on an improving track is “for the government to ensure that every workplace faces the possibility of an inspection; we have sufficient inspector numbers to do the job; and employers and union health and safety representatives are given the tools to deal with issues such as stress, occupational cancer and musculoskeletal disorders”.
Even HSE chair Judith Hackitt made an oblique reference to the damaging culture being pushed by the coalition government. She said of the figures: “We should remind ourselves what these numbers actually mean — the number of times in the last year someone went out to work and either did not return home to their loved ones or came home with life-changing injuries.”
Hackitt added: “Jobsworths using ‘elf n safety’ as a convenient excuse for all manner of things, and those claiming health and safety is a burden, need to reflect on this.”
Key statistics: Great Britain
An estimated two million people in 2013-14 were suffering from an illness they believed was caused or made worse by their current or previous work.
Of these, over 0.5 million were new conditions which started during the year. Some 80% of these are musculoskeletal disorders or stress, depression or anxiety.
Comprehensive figures for fatalities from occupational diseases are not available, but around 13,000 deaths each year from occupational lung disease and cancer are estimated to have been caused by past exposure to substances at work. More than half of deaths are due to asbestos exposure.
• there were 133 fatal injuries in 2013-14, a rate of 0.44 per 100,000 workers. The worst sectors are construction, agriculture and waste and recycling; and
• there were 77,593 non-fatal injuries as reported under the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations (RIDDOR) (based on provisional figures). Other figures, not related to RIDDOR, show there were 629,000 workplace injuries in the year.
• 674 cases were prosecuted* covering 1,187 offences;
• there were 636 convictions covering 1,073 offences. Fines totalled £18 million;
• 13,790 enforcement notices were issued by the HSE, a rise of 15% on the previous year; and
• 3,671 enforcement notices were issued by local authorities, a fall of 22% on the previous year.
• 28.2 million working days were lost due to illness and injury in British workplaces in 2013-14; and
• the estimated cost of injury and ill health in Great Britain is £14.2 billion (based on 2012-13 figures).
* by the HSE, local authorities and, in Scotland, the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service