Thursday, March 24, 2011

UNISON health and safety seminar 2011: Judith Hackett on the cuts and charging for enforcement?

Today the national UNISON Health & Safety Seminar took place at the ICC in Birmingham. There were around 250 delegates from all over the UK and all parts of UNISON. Assistant General Secretary (and member of HSE Board) Liz Snape chaired the seminar. She told us that UNISON has 12,000 safety reps protecting members and although our work is often invisible and behind the scenes are role is absolutely vital. Our keynote speaker was Judith Hackett (left) who is the Chair of the Health & Safety Executive who was described as someone “who says it as it is”. This reminded me of the last time I had heard Judith speak.

Judith also thanked safety reps for the important work that they do. The core mission of the HSE is still to prevent death, serious injuries and work related ill-health. She believes that despite the cuts and recent Coalition reports and pronouncements they still fall with the broad HSE strategy that was started in 2008. Safety reps and managers need to lead in safety matters. Need Joint working such as the “Safe and Sound at work - do your bit” course. In which there is joint training with reps and management. Finding solutions together rather than being confrontational. .  

The Comprehensive Spending Review meant a 35% saving on public funding over the next 4 years. However, a bit of context. 35% cuts are the norm in the Department of Work & Pensions. So we are not being dealt with harsher than anyone else under this remit. She accepts that many of us think there should not be any cuts at all.

1/3 of their work is claimed back already from industry. The cuts apply to the rest. Moving the HSE headquarters from London to Bootle has saved money. 200 HSE staff left in a voluntary exist scheme recently. Rationalisation of estate and cuts in back office services will result in further savings. Recognise the importance of saving front line services as far as we can. Will not change in high risk industries but will look to modernise. Other services we will not change are reactive work including inspections and responses to complaints and reports. Reactive will remain unaffected but somewhere pain is inevitable. Numbers of inspections will have to be will have to be reduced in some areas. Have to target inspections with regard to risk. Compare other possible methods of interventions than individual premise inspections. In some workplaces, pro active inspections remain the best but in other sectors evidence points to effectiveness of other interventions. We will not take decisions in isolation, we will speak to stakeholders. We will learn as we go on. Over time a company or sector may improve performance and receive less attention or if they deteriorate they will receive more. 

On Monday the Minister said the clear intention is to take tough line with those who flout the law. See the idea of cost recovery from firms who do this. We can discuss what “low risk” is. However “low risk” does not mean no risk. In future we may have a supporting role rather than leading role in the production of guidance. Charging for HSE inspections. This is a fair deal. It should be welcomed by vast majority of employers since they claim they are complaint so they have nothing to worry about. It only penalises those who don’t comply. It brings a level playing field with costs. It is another form of enforcement. We may charge for some advice. But will not go back on our policy to make all information and guidance free to download from our web site. Our ideas need to develop and work out the detail and we need to consult. So context again: there is not a 35% reduction in everything we do. We already recover costs so it seems fair to extend this. It puts an increased onus on those who at fault. So they should be charged for the costs we bear to put their house in order.  

Summary. Foolish to deny times are tough. What is still constant is that we both share similar concerns and a “shared mission”. We won’t agree on everything but we all agree on this. Now we need your support and all of you to play your part. To be our eyes and ears. This is not where you want to be but despite the problems we all need to work together and do our bit.

In the Q&A she was asked is it sending the wrong message by saying office’s are “low risk” when many office workers suffer from high stress levels and asbestos is found in offices? She said again that low risk did not mean no risk. It is obvious that the level of risk in a corner shop will be different from that found in a Timber cutting yard.
I asked whether she was suggesting that safety reps should be taking the place of HSE inspectors and if she envisage a “beefed up” role for reps? If so this would maybe help change the governments mind about cutting inspections? She responded by repeating our importance as being their eyes and ears.  

She confirmed that the “Killer Asbestos” campaigns will continue and that she was not sure whether a reduction in RIDDOR reporting from 3 to 7 days was a good idea. But we need to review RIDDOR since there are a lot of problems with it such as under reporting. She dismissed the question that did the cuts mean that the HSE was now a toothless tiger by saying that the organisation has delivered amongst the best health & safety record in the world. Things are not perfect but you should not forget this. The safety system in the UK does not depend on the HSE alone. You do yourself a disservice if you think this. 

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