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The risks of reduction

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

Research programme director at IOSH, Professor Robert Dingwall, talks to PSE about the importance of research before restructuring.

The Government is implementing changes to health and safety legislation, and aims to ‘scrap or improve’ 84% of regulations. IOSH is currently investigating the impacts this would have on workers and businesses.

IOSH launched its research programme, ‘Health and safety in a changing world’, three years ago to strengthen its strategic direction in the context of public criticism on the excesses of health and safety regulation and to reflect the changes that have occurred in the reorganisation of the industry since the main framework of health and safety regulation was created in the 1970s.

One of the projects within this broader programme, taking place at Nottingham University Business School, will focus on the effects of deregulation, to determine whether it is actually the holy grail for economic growth it is often portrayed as.

Professor Robert Dingwall, programme director for the research at IOSH, suggested that other factors had contributed to the negative perception of health and safety from politicians, the public and the media. This can include issues to do with insurance, as well as the culture surrounding legal action.

He said: “A lot of the people who are pressing for deregulation think the problem is just to do with regulations.

Some of it is actually about risk aversion in organisations and some of it’s about fear of litigation, which doesn’t really have anything to do with what an inspector does. Some of it’s to do with what the insurance companies demand of people.”

Invisible constraints

Taking deregulation too far could indeed risk the development of a private argument with an insurance company over their expectations, instead of a public debate with a regulator. This means that deregulation could simply substitute invisible private constraints for visible public ones.

Prof Dingwall said: “You might find that some of the things that the Government is committed to doing, which gets some support from the Löfstedt report, actually don’t free up industry in the way that some of their advocates expect. They just create a kind of vacuum, and somebody else comes in and fills the vacuum.

“The Nottingham project is really concentrated on ‘Is this a risk? Is this something that might happen?’ – whether there are better ways of dealing with the issues provoking these complaints about excessive regulation, rather than just saying ‘we will deregulate’.”

Reducing regulation may not eliminate all the difficulties organisations face concerning health and safety, Prof Dingwall suggested, and could potentially mean increased risk, as well as bureaucracy from other avenues. In short, the assumption that regulation poses a burden is, as yet, unsubstantiated.

Talking to people in industry suggests that one problem could be the liability insurer, who may not fully understand the business. This would limit discussion and negotiation because the expertise is lacking – although Prof Dingwall is quick to point out that this “may or may not be true” and stated that this was why research was necessary, to uncover current performance.

He said: “Sometimes regulation is the right thing to do, sometimes it’s sitting down with the company management and saying: ‘Well it’s not good for the business if your workers start getting killed because you’re a bit careless about this. Can we look at the working practices here and come up with something that is a bit safer?’”

The project is considering the long-term effects of deregulation, looking into the future five or even ten years ahead to determine the full impact of such a shift. The first wave of studies will be producing reports from the middle of next year onwards; the programme itself runs until the middle of 2015.

Other projects within the research include research in Edinburgh to consider the knowledge base that currently exists.

Collating information from the various inter-disciplinary enterprises involved is a “big challenge”, Prof Dingwall said. The team will evaluate how health and safety professionals access this information in practice and interrogate the knowledge that is available to them.

Outsourcing safety

The third project is based in Loughborough, and considers the development of networkformed organisations in the private sector. Due to the current trend to outsource more work, the supply chain structure has changed significantly, which has raised a number of issues, especially ensuring that an adequate level of expertise is sustained throughout.

The construction industry might be given responsibility for subcontracted health and safety inspection, with large contractors required to impose regulations and best practice on all of their subcontractors and the total workforce on a given site.

The Loughborough team will investigate whether this model is increasing risk, and how risk can be managed all the way down the supply chain. For many large contractors and companies, health and safety systems are replicated in-house even if they do not directly employ many of the people who work there.

The main benefits of such research are to maintain protection for the workforce, through adequate training, equipment and supervision. Prof Dingwall explained: “IOSH have no interest in imposing unnecessary cost burdens on businesses, but their members are there to be advocates for health and safety in the workplace and for ensuring that line managers take those issues seriously.”

Healthy business

He went on to describe the significant progression seen in health and safety in recent years, and how it can have a positive impact beyond simple protection from accidents.

“Very often it is getting businesses to recognise a healthy, safe workforce is good for business – you get better quality workers, you get more contented and productive workers and having that feeling of being looked after by your company, by the people you’re working for, does in the end feed through to the bottom line.

“Your production doesn’t stop; your workers feel more valued and feel that they’re contributing more to the company – that kind of engagement is very much the key to quality and productivity.”

Acknowledging the negative perceptions around health and safety, Prof Dingwall said: “I think people do feel a little frustrated by this kind of oppositional talk that goes on. People talk about it as a cost, an overhead, rather than something that’s really the key to running a successful business. Successful businesses get quality right first time and they get health and safety right first time. That’s what IOSH practitioners are trying to support people to do.”

The next wave of projects in the programme is expected to start around late 2012 and last 24 months. The topics for these are currently under discussion, but will probably be focused more on the issues of knowledge management, Prof Dingwall said.

“It will be within this broad framework, probably more focussed on trying to help people think creatively about health and safety in a way that still gives effective protection to workers, but which allows us to build a little bit more flexibility and creativity into the system.”

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