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Playing pass the parcel

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

Hugh Robertson, senior policy officer for health and safety at the TUC, spoke at IOSH 2012 on the Government’s misplaced priorities.

Although the HSE has implemented government strategy in a “responsible and structured way”, the TUC believes there are serious issues with what this approach to health and safety actually entails.

Senior policy offer for health and safety Hugh Robertson argues that despite claims that regulation has gone too far, for occupational disease it has not gone far enough.

Three main reviews in the last few years – Young, the Red Tape Challenge and the recent Löfstedt review – have all reported similar conclusions; the current health and safety system is fit for purpose.

Robertson told the conference: “We’re getting a trend here, which is that there isn’t a need for huge, major changes. Yet despite these three reviews, we’re still hearing from politicians: ‘health and safety regulation is a burden on business and has to be removed.’”

A difference is beginning to be made in politicians’ attitudes to health and safety, with the parcel of blame being passed away from attacking regulations, to the interpretation of those regulations, or the compensation culture that encourages workers to make claims.

While this may seem like positive progress, Robertson warned that it is “potentially dangerous” for the health and safety system as this assumes that regulation is necessarily negative.

“I’ve never actually heard of someone being killed by an overly-written risk assessment,” he said. “The problem is that over half of businesses haven’t even done a simple risk assessment…There’s absolutely no evidence of over-compliance being a problem anymore than there was evidence of overregulation.

“It’s just moving the scapegoat from health and safety away from the regulators to the practitioners, whose role it is to work with and support businesses, creating this new myth that we’ve got a problem with overzealous interpretation.”

This could lead employers to implement minimal health and safety and could put pressure on health and safety practitioners to start “dumbing down” their advice to employers.

He maintained that compensation culture was just “another bogeyman”, which the reviews had shown was simply a misperception. Government is currently acting to make claiming compensation more difficult, something he criticised.

“I’m willing to stand up and say that we need the compensation claims to promote good health and safety.”

By reporting the mistakes, workers can help to prevent further claims being made and ensure best standards are enforced.

He said: “What we’ve ended up with in the past few years is pass the parcel, where the Government and regulators themselves say it’s not them that is the problem, it’s the way regulations are enforced at HSE. And then we’re told it’s not just about that, it’s the way people interpret regulations, especially consultants. Then we’re told ‘No, it’s not that, it’s workers making false claims.”

Robertson suggested that the real problem was addressing the key priorities. The Government focuses regulation on obviously high-risk workplaces, such as industrial plants, over hairdressers or bakeries. Yet the levels of occupational diseases that are rife in these industries mean that risk is much higher than it may superficially appear.

“The Government’s strategy on regulation enforcement is facing a very narrow, shortterm view of health and safety that has no place in today’s workforce. We know, using HSE figures, 171 workers were killed at work last year. 171 too many.

“Yet over 8,000 died last year from occupational cancers. Another 4,000 died from [work-related] COPD. Of all the work-related sickness absence, it’s not the injuries that make up the bulk of it, its simple muscular skeletal disorders and stress.”

Despite the scale of this problem, it is not something mentioned commonly in reports, and the Government does not seem to have a strategy to deal with it.

Robertson commented: “Since the election I have not seen any indication from the Government that it has any concept on how it’s going to deal with the huge problem we have out there; the MSDs, the asthmas, the cancers, the mental health problems.”

Whilst preventing major catastrophes and immediate deaths and injuries is vital, in terms of numbers of deaths or of people affected, occupational disease has the most considerable effect.

“The reason it’s happening,” he said, “is because deaths through occupational illness and disease often happen 10, 20 or 30 years from now, and by then politicians will have moved on. That’s why ministers, any minister, from whatever political party, is going to prioritise things that go ‘bang’, and immediate deaths.”

This short-termism means that huge problems could be stored up for future generations. Robertson argued: “Over the three reviews we have had, each one was asked to look at reducing the burden of health and safety on business. Not one was asked to look at how we could improve the health and safety regime for both workers and employees in the current economic situation. That is the question we should have been asked.”

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