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Health and safety inspections: myths and dogma

Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), discusses the Government’s proposed changes to workplace health and safety inspections. Amy Kilvington reports.

The Coalition is determined to cut “unnecessary red tape” in an attempt to meet the concerns of business leaders who feel growth is being constrained by regulations. Political ideology also comes into it: both Coalition parties prefer to keep state intervention in business to a minimum.

As business secretary Vince Cable has it, reducing regulation will foster more employment opportunities, business innovation and company expansion. Among the recent regulatory areas to fall beneath the Government’s gaze is health and safety inspections, which are to be scrapped at ‘lowrisk’ premises such as shops, pubs and offices, unless there is an employee complaint or incident flagged to the HSE.

This goes beyond the recommendations of the Government-commissioned review into health and safety legislation, conducted by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, which reported last November. He recommended removing self-employed people from the scope of current laws, and removing the ‘strict liability’ principle from the Health & Safety at Work Act, but largely endorsed the current framework.

Cuts to inspections were labelled “concerning” by Richard Jones of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

He told PSE: “It’s acknowledged that good health and safety is good for business. It saves lives, it supports enterprise and it sustains the economy. In these tough economic times, businesses need more help, not less. This push for jobs and economic growth cannot be at the expense of worker’s lives.”

The Government has said workplaces deemed high-risk – such as construction, mining, manufacturing and agriculture – will still be proactively inspected. But Jones said: “Of course the Government refers to lowrisk workplaces. But our point of view is that these are still workplaces where people can be seriously injured or made ill by poorlymanaged work.”

Jones says the whole idea of “burdensome inspections” holding back business growth is a myth. “It’s been estimated that on average SMEs are only likely to receive an inspection visit from an HSE inspector about once every 14 years. It’s not very onerous.”

Indeed, he said, proactive inspections are generally ‘friendly’ and government commissioned research in 2008 found that many small firms welcomed the checks.

Jones said: “They [SMEs] see them as a source of free expert advice.”

The changes to business regulation are part of the ‘red tape challenge’, which the Government says will lead to the abolition or reduction of 3,000 rules of 6,500 examined.

But the Government has been deliberately confusing the issue, Jones said, since there are only about 200 health and safety regulations in total: the rest concern completely different areas, for example environmental and consumer protection.

He said: “We’ve estimated that [together] with what the HSE are doing at the moment, there will probably be about 70 regulations affected. These will either be merged or revoked, which only represents around about 2% of the 3,000 that the Government are talking about.

“They seem determined to say that it’s health and safety that’s the big cause of the burden. We’re not pleased with the way they do that.

“Health and safety [has] also gained a bit of a bad name in recent years due to certain misguided people wrongly using it as an excuse to ban things.

“We think the Government would be better placed in tackling the exaggerated fear of being sued that many people have. This is being fuelled by the aggressive marketing that we see by claims management companies.”

The Government is determined to get more people into work, but this in itself can have an impact on health and safety in the workplace.

Jones told us: “If we take the increase in new inexperienced recruits as we emerge from recession, combined with fewer inspections, and the message that’s been given out by the Government that somehow health and safety doesn’t matter, it’s a recipe for more accidents.”

The HSE estimates the annual cost of health and safety failures to the British economy at up to £22bn. Jones noted: “Clearly if accidents and injuries do increase, then these costs are likely to rise. This includes, of course, all the NHS costs and social security costs.

“We think government should tackle the problems with the compensation system, and also promote the benefits of good health and safety, not continually rubbish health and safety and blame it as if it’s a big burden on business.

“We don’t believe it is. There are lots of other things that are. Health and safety isn’t one of them.”

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