Sunday, November 30, 2008

Future of Health & Safety Enforcement.

I attended this conference organised by the Centre for Corporate Accountability (CCA) on behalf of London UNISON regional Health & Safety Committee. It took place at the NUT headquarters in Hamilton Place, Kings Cross in its main hall and it was full. The CCA is a charity concerned with promoting worker and public safety.

The first speaker was Judith Hackitt, the Chair of the Health & Safety Executive Board. On the same panel was Graham Russell who is the Chief Executive of Local Better Regulation Office and Louise Adamson from “Families Against Corporate Killers” (FACK) see photo left. Louise gave the most impressive and emotive speech I have ever heard on the real importance of effective safety enforcement.

Judith spoke first and welcomed the new tougher sentencing that will come into force in January 2009. Fines have been significantly increased and many health & safety offences will now be punishable by imprisonment. She thought that the HSE have done a good job and that there had been a 70% reduction in deaths in the last 30 years. Britain has amongst the very best health & safety record but is not complacent. There are still 200 deaths each year, 28,000 seriously hurt and 2 million workers hurt. Asbestos kills 4000 per year. Work related ill-health is a major problem. What is needed is refinement and improvement but not radical overhaul. There should be a common sense approach based on common goals. Whilst I think that it is true that since the Health & Safety at Work Act in 1974 there have been huge improvements in safety, because we no longer have a large industrial manufacturing and mining sectors anymore then a significant reduction in deaths would have happened anyway.

Graham spoke next; I must admit that I had only been vaguely aware of the “Local Better Regulation Office”. Putting aside any comparisons to “Yes Minister” and its fictional “Department of Administrative Affairs” its aim is to advise ministers on reducing “unnecessary” regulations. There are some 200 British and EU regulations on safety. Many people present at the conference are naturally suspicious that this could result in voluntary rather than statutory regulation of health & Safety. Graham claimed this is not so and that the aim was better regulation of high risk employers not “light touch” deregulation. Companies also currently waste around £140 million per year on advice from health & Safety consultants which they could have got for free from the HSE/Local Authority Inspectors.

Louise spoke movingly about the death of her brother in 2006 who was electrocuted at work. I would urge everyone to read her speech here at the CCA site. Several times during her very eloquent message she struggled to contain her emotions but she carried on. It was also a hard hitting; factual account about inadequate and inappropriate enforcement, unacceptable delays a judicial process which often resulted in derisory penalties. Somebody wiser than me once said: “the world is a dangerous place, not because “those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” So, we call upon those responsible for enforcement to stop looking on”.

Sitting next to her was of course Judith Hackitt. Sitting next to me was a Mother and Father who had also lost their son while at work.

During the Q&A I asked Judith why she said that an 80% success rate for HSE prosecutions was “about right” and if it was more than this it would mean that the HSE was being too safe. While Graham had said that Local Authority prosecutions had a 95% success rate. Didn’t this indicate that the Local authorities were too safe and not taking enough prosecutions? Apparently not, HSE and Local authority prosecutions of the same law are in someway “different” (hmmm).

There was an interesting discussion about the IOD/HSE guidance for Directors. It is a voluntary code but the key actions are legal duties.

After a rather hostile question was put to Judith and Graham, a national safety officer from GMB (I didn’t hear his name) did thank Judith for turning up to such a meeting, to face the music which I thought was a fair point and pretty much everyone agreed.

After coffee we had Tory MP Andrew Selous, Shadow Minister, Work and Pensions. He thanked the CCA for being the only NGO that monitors workplace deaths. He attacked the false allegations made against the HSE by the tabloid press. To my astonishment he even attacked the “Daily Torygraph” for printing an untruthful story about choir boys being banned from pancake races for health & safety reasons. He then called the paper “shameful” for refusing to print a rebuttal. Andrew pointed out that there had been a crossbench consensus on Health & Safety and that it was a Tory government that brought in the 1974 Act. He supported the recent Health & Safety offences bill not least because he did not want decent companies undercut by rogue firms. He expressed concern about the reduction in the number of HSE inspectors and put forward a suggestion that companies should be forced to publish information relating to the health & safety record in their annual accounts.

Well, I never....however, before getting too carried away with this new generation of One Nation Tories I should have reminded Andrew of the bile that his own leader David Cameron came out with during his recent conference speech attacking the "health and safety and human rights culture". Same old Tories?

Next was Neil Hope-Collins from the trade union Prospect who is the HSE branch Chair. Neil is a HSE inspector but was speaking (in front of his boss) in a union capacity.

He quoted Gordon Brown from his 2003 speech that “Safety at work, is, as it should be, the mark of a civilised society” then “judge not by your words but by your actions” (from 2005 Batman film – who said inspectors don’t have a sense of humour). He thinks that the HSE “model” as set up by Robbins in 1972 still “works” but Neil is rightly concerned about the rock bottom morale at the HSE. A large number of staff has left, leading to fewer investigations and pro-active inspections. Low pay means that there is a skill gap in the HSE since so many experienced inspectors have left. It takes 5 years to become a fully trained inspector. Enforcement is needed to challenge employer’s indifference and apathy. Good intentions are useless. Safety reps should be the “eyes and ears” of the HSE.

The final morning speaker was Steve Tombs, who is the Chair of CCA. Steve is a former butcher and construction worker who is now a Professor of Sociology in Liverpool. Steve takes no prisoners. He’s not all that keen on Geoffrey Podger, the HSE CEO. Now in the past I have had a few differences of opinion myself with “Geoff”. So I can understand where he is coming from.

Steve spoke about a recent report called “A Crisis in Enforcement”. How people were in fact more likely to suffer “violence” (as in physical harm not from physical assault) while at work rather than violence or harm outside work. He believes that there is an employer accountability gap. Despite this problem there has been a huge fall in HSE inspectors and enforcement action. Investigations into reported injuries are also down, with many serious injuries not being investigated.

It is inconceivable to imagine that if someone lost an eye or a limb in a fight or traffic accident in Liverpool city centre that the Police would refuse to investigate it. Yet if someone loses an eye or leg in a work related “accident” usually the HSE will not investigate.

Steve argued that “targeting” sends out the wrong message and risk based regulation leads to less regulation for business and less protection for workers.

After lunch we had an unexpected lively and interactive presentation from the Greater Manchester Coroner, Nigel Meadows. He is not what you expect a Crown Coroner to be. I completely failed his video quiz on what witnesses see or don’t see in a game of basketball (I say no more).

Unite national officer Rob Miguel and CCA director David Bergman presented reports that comprehensively showed that many (if not most) local authorities are failing to carry out their health and safety responsibilities.

Solicitor Colin Ettinger reported on research that examined fatalities amongst migrant workers and was able to demonstrate disproportionate death rates, particularly of Polish construction workers.

Hugh Robertson, the TUC (and formerly UNISON) senior health & safety advisor (& HSE Board member) reminded everyone that we should be concerned not only about safety but ill-health at work. Often if someone loses their hearing during the course of their employment it is obviously difficult to record and pin down this serious injury as an “accident”. Funny enough today, in Forest Gate I noticed a workman making a repair to the road using a really loud hammer drill using no obvious ear protection at all. He was a young bloke who will probably be deaf or hard of hearing by the time he is 50. What should or could I have done about this?

The conference finished with presentations on Corporate Manslaughter by Steven Summer from the Local Government Employers and Julian Topping from NHS employers. It would seem that both groups of employers are finally getting their act together with regard to health and safety.

We will wait and see. But interestingly my interpretation of their presentations is that greater management interest and involvement has been driven by the threat of enforcement action against them personally. The Corporate Manslaughter legislation has not worried them as much as the prospect of personal imprisonment due to the upgrading of health & safety offenses from fines to porridge. I think it is early days but there is a message somewhere.


Unknown said...

I would agree that most local authorities are failing in their duty of care.
Most do not even check the driving licences and MOT certificates of the employees and their vehicles.
Perhaps it needs for one to be prosecuted before they take notice, that would be such a shame, as someone will have had to die.

John Gray said...

Hi Nigel

Apology for late comment but agreed!