Friday, November 14, 2008

Health & Safety in the 21st Century

Today I went to the 4th joint Health & Safety Executive/SERTUC seminar for trade union safety representatives at Congress House.

There were about 250 reps from London and the South East and a pretty high profile panel of speakers.

It was opened by Stephen Williams, the local HSE area Director, then a keynote speech from Judith Hackitt, the Chair of the HSE. Next a Q&A including Lord McKenzie the Minister for Health & Safety and Hugh Robertson (formerly UNISON) from the TUC and non-executive director of the HSE.

There were stalls run by Thompsons solicitors and the HSE. In the workshops that I attended there was two HSE inspectors (one a manager) and a senior Council safety enforcement officer. Considering that many safety reps never meet or speak to a HSE or council safety inspector in their careers, this is pretty good access.

I’ll post now on what I thought was interesting in the speech by Judith Hackitt and I’ll try to post on other matters later. Her speech was entitled “Health & Safety in the 21st Century” while the seminar itself was called “Worker Involvement in Health & Safety”

Judith (right of picture next to Lord McKenzie) was appointed as Chair of the HSE last year for a 5 year term. She had previously been a HSE commissioner. Her background is Chemical Engineering and it was mentioned that in the past she had worked for companies that had been prosecuted by the HSE for safety offences. I’m not sure that is reassuring or not?

Firstly, dare I say a health warning? This report is based on my very hurried and scribbled notes.

Judith started off very well by stressing the importance of safety reps as “absolutely essential” and that she was surprised that we still had to promote the idea to employers of workers involvement nowadays.

The world had changed, there was the emerging and growing SME sector, and we had to face the fact that trade union representation had declined and that many workers had no union protection.

New risks such as bullying, violence and infection control need to be controlled by effective risk assessment (I’m not sure that these are all that new, but in the past they were not properly addressed). The HSE is now willing to consider enforcement action to facilitate safety reps (excellent news). Need to concentrate on supply chains, training and educating employers on the benefits of safety reps.

Since 1974 Britain had been very successful in health & safety and was “amongst the best in the world”. Even so it was still unacceptable that some 200 workers are killed, 28,000 seriously injured and some 2 million hurt every year. Not forgetting the 4,000 who die annually from work related cancer (asbestos).

It is still the overriding principal that it is those “who create the risk that are the best to manage it” (employers). She attacked “jobs worth’s” that use ‘elf & safety” as an excuse not to do things they (bureaucrats) don’t want to do. Instead of trying to stop people being killed they bang on about banning conkers and Pancake Day races. Real health & safety is not about stopping anyone doing their job, it is about making it safer and more efficient. The media should stop its nonsense and tell the real story.

She addressed the trade union call for more safety inspectors. She asked is this the only solution? Since it is logically flawed. The HSE is not responsible for safety, it is managers and employers. There is a question of motivation about safety. Safety needs to be embedded into the culture of companies. The HSE needs to concentrate on high risk employers but there is no question of an exemption for anyone. Duty holders manage the workplace. The HSE should provide them with advice and guidance. Encouraging better and more constructive safety arrangements.

There was a somewhat lively Q&A afterwards. I had the opportunity to try and explain that the reason why trade unions asked for more inspectors is that too many employers don’t take safety issues seriously and for example, either don’t do risk assessments or just employ consultants to write them up and leave them on shelves. We want more inspectors not just to go around prosecuting employers (even though we could do with more of this), they are needed to visit and explain to employers what they should be doing to protect the safety of their workers. That is why we need more of them.

Judith answered that is what the HSE are trying to do, target employers who need advice and guidance. I still don’t understand how they can do this with so few inspectors?

Lord McKenzie took a question on the victimisation of safety reps by employers. One rep present had recently been sacked for safety rep duties. To be fair to Lord McKenzie, he utterly condemned any victimisation, said it was totally unacceptable, even though he did not know the details of this case, he promised to look into it. On his way out he did stop and take details from the reps concerned.

A couple of other points were that the HSE/Councils are compiling a list of rubbish safety consultants. They have also prosecuted consultants in the past for bad practices and are aware of the problem and intend to do something about it. Good!

The second point was a response to a question by another Housing association rep about whether public funding should only be given to organisations that have good health & safety practices (supply chains?). The response from the panel was a suggestion was that this was something that could be taken up with the regulators of these bodies and those responsible for these public funds. Which I will bring up at my branch executive later this month? It makes perfect sense.

Finally, I thought that Judith Hackitt performed well, and she certainly was not savaged the way that I have seen previous Chairs of the HSE been treated at similar conferences. Maybe, its early days mind?

Lord McKenzie was a breath of fresh air as a safety minister. He gave the sincere impression that he genuinely wanted to listen and learn. None of the arrogance you get from some ministers.

I think that the overall message to the unions was that the HSE think safety reps do, by and large, a good job, but that most workers who need protection do not work in unionised workplaces anymore. Where there are unionised workplaces, I think that the HSE have woken up to the fact that safety reps can in theory actually do “their” work as advisers and guide employers. This would free up their time to inspect the workplaces that are not unionised. I think this is what they are saying, and if so, this is potentially a huge opportunity for unions.

Personally, I think for this to work, safety reps need more of an enforcement role (provisional inspection notices?) but this is a change which I think needs to be more widely debated in the trade union movement. It’s a classic “threat” and “opportunity”. There again, while we suffer plenty of threats we don’t that often get all that many opportunities.


Anonymous said...

great that the ambulance chasers were present...

John Gray said...

Hi anon

a year late but what on earth do you mean?