Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by GMB

INTRODUCTION

  GMB takes the issue of health, safety and welfare at work very seriously. Over 15,000 GMB safety representatives on every working day attempt to engage in constructive dialogue with their employers over a diverse range of industries across both the public and private sector.

  GMB welcomes the further opportunity to respond to the Select Committee call for written submissions and would like to respond to the specific questions as follows.

The Legislative framework—is the regulatory burden on businesses proportionate?

  GMB understands well why this question has been framed in this way, and feels that this is part of what may be seen as the ongoing propaganda war on legislation by both some business organizations and sections of the (right wing) media. By constantly stating that the burdens on business are disproportionate, particularly for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) this becomes an accepted truth with little hard evidence to back this up.

  SMEs are notorious for pleading ignorance in relation to the relevant legislation around health, safety and welfare. The project set up by HSE/DWP on Workers Safety Advisors (WSA) which ran from July 2004 to March 2007 was specifically designed in an attempt to get the "health and safety message" into this sector.

  Almost without fail all the WSA operatives came up against a real lack of knowledge on the legislation, the need for safety policies, the requirement for risk assessments and the involvement of the workforce. Recently the HSE has been looking to draw up guidance on exposure to asbestos, within the small construction sector, and have acknowledged that this is a "difficult area to reach". They have therefore decided to try out a pilot project (in North West England) using the media to get their advice across. This would seem to belie the claims that regulations are a burden on business as much of the evidence points to a general ignoring of legislation, regulations and guidance.

  With regard to larger organizations the recent guidance issues by the Institute of Directors (IoD), in conjunction with the HSC, entitled "Leading health and safety at work" recognizes the benefits of good health and safety at work. In particular it states that" Addressing health and safety should not be seen as a regulatory burden: it offers significant opportunities".

  GMB would endorse this approach but would also question again the process by which Regulatory Impact Assessments (RIA) are made. We feel that there are a number of inherent problems with the current approach.

  Firstly we are not convinced that the expertise exists within the Department to effectively do more than "guesstimate" any final figures surrounding the introduction of any legislation. And secondly there appears to be little or no follow up to evaluate if the figures are accurate or not.

EU DIRECTIVES INTO UK LEGISLATION

  GMB has sympathy to some extent with the situation that the HSE/C finds itself in. First it has to ensure that any legislation is transposed into UK law, hopefully in an understandable manner while having to meet legal duties Then it has to issue guidance, which is again constrained by the need to ensure that is both understandable and quasi legalistic. It is easier for a trade union, such as GMB, to take HSE guidance and make it comprehensible for workers than for the HSE to easily do so. Largely the HSE do a reasonable job in transposing EU legislation, though due to the allocation of resources (more of which later) increasingly guidance is being published on the website rather than in hard copy. This may not always be accessible to all those who might need the information, and again sole traders or SMEs may be particularly hard hit as they may not have access to technology or just be unaware of the new guidance etc.

  The guidance issued by the IoD, already mentioned, is perhaps just one area where the incoming Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act will impact on organizations. Obviously it is difficult to tell if the unfortunate rise in workplace deaths in 2006-07 was as a direct result of the discussion on the proposed Bill being seen as weaker than originally thought by the various campaigning and pressure groups, including the trade unions, due to the exclusion of individual director's liability, and therefore a psychological easing up on vigilance by organisations. However, it would seem from the guidance issued by the Justice Ministry, which would appear in the first instance to be fairly rigorous, and the close scrutiny that the Bill had through both Houses of Parliament, that there will be an increased awareness of the consequences if there is a corporate failure to deal with serious situations. Some of the outcomes will not be measurable until the Act is passed and the first legal test case complete.

  Again with reference to the director's duties under occupational health and safety while the document is a positive, and to us a logical, step unless it is used by any enforcement agency when checking the safety systems in place, it will only be paper guidance with little practical application. Its application in practice should form part of any regular documentary check into how a business is performing in relation to health and safety.

RESOURCES AND ENFORCEMENT

  As the number of people at work grows, and the diversity of both the workforce (gender, ethnicity and rehabilitation) and the nature of employment (smaller employers, casualisation, self-employment and transitory employment) it seems perverse that the HSE is expected to undergo year on year cuts of 5% for at least three years. It is already well documented that the expectation of a workplace visit has moved from every seven years to greater than every 10. Increasingly it would seem that these visits are no longer proactive but purely reactive, and even here a visit is often restricted to very serious accidents.

  Of course there is always a need to evaluate the way in which resources are used, but even if the claim that there would be no effect on frontline staff, cuts anywhere in the service can be detrimental as the other staff, if employed by the Department, could be used as liaison/ information officers for those very sectors and employers who are hard to reach (both inside and outside construction.

  One scenario which GMB, and we are sure other trade unions, would not welcome would be the temporary transfer of resources from one industrial sector to another because of a perceived problem in that sector at that time. All sectors should have resources allocated on the basis of proportionality, both in terms of need and size.

  The relocation of HSE HQ from Rose Court (London) to Bootle could have far reaching consequences for the future of HSE. Obviously when change is forced upon workers morale will be deeply affected. GMB fears a tipping point being reached here. If experienced staff and inspectors do not relocate there is a need to replace them—in itself not an easy situation. But if the level of knowledge and experience falls below a certain threshold then it could be irreversible. Already in the Nuclear Inspectorate there is a shortfall of 35 inspectors reported even with an offer of a 15% premium in salary. GMB feels that this may in, a relatively short period of time, be replicated across the whole HSE. Many private sector organizations welcome the inclusion of inspectors onto their payroll, often with better terms and conditions, leading also to a reduced public service ethos within the remaining workforce.

  As a modern society evolves some of the demands placed upon regulators, for enforcement and guidance will change. The industrial landscape in the UK has changed from a manufacturing to a service based economy. There has been a consequent shift towards other work related problems such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and stress. The HSE is also asked to intervene in public diseases such as MRSA or Foot and Mouth outbreaks, as well as prosecutions against the Metropolitan Police. As in the problem with recruiting Nuclear inspectors and incidents such as the Buncefield explosion it seems clear that there is already not enough back up resources.

  Without the appropriate resources the HSE will continue to fail to meet the PSA targets. As the workforce becomes better educated they will not accept, rightly, the working conditions their forebears suffered (a situation that will also hopefully apply to incoming workers as awareness increases). GMB calls for all cuts to be reversed and an increase in funding to be made to meet the increasing demands of a 21st century workforce.

  GMB has made this next point before but will reiterate it again with regards to enforcement and resources. The other main regulator in workplaces are the Local Authorities through their Environmental Health Officers (EHO). It is common knowledge that each year local authorities are squeezed for resources and limited in their local ability to raise revenue, whatever the political persuasion at Westminster.

  This has consequences in their ability to function on health and safety enforcement at a local level. Many authorities will choose to prioritise their environmental health activities, understandably, and will concentrate on food safety and noise abatement with others areas falling behind. As the service sector continues to grow an evaluation of the role of "who should enforce what" allied to the total resources allocated to enforcement should be undertaken. Politically it is often easier to allocate resources from the general fund rather than the "local" fund!

  As a trade union GMB believes that the meaningful involvement of the workforce is paramount to ensuring good health and safety standards within a workplace. Every study undertaken highlights that this considerably reduces accidents and ill-health. However, there has never been a prosecution by the HSE following a complaint on a lack of consultation with reps or the workforce and safety reps become cynical that the law only seems to apply when it suits. In effect the provisions of the "brown book"—(The Safety Reps and Safety Committee Regulations) are never properly enforced. A HSC consultation on Worker Involvement in 2006 ended with no change, despite an overwhelming response in favour of safety reps being involved in risk assessments, and the employer having to respond in writing when a rep raises a health and safety problem in similar fashion. The final decision was that these were not needed, and obviously with the HSE already stretched this could be seen as understandable from a resources point of view but it doesn't help to improve the matter where it counts—in workplaces.

OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH SERVICES PROVISION

  GMB has recently responded to the Dame Carol Black review of occupational health services but are happy to clarify the main points for this submission. It is obvious that occupational health provision is patchy. Even where an organization does attempt to use such services often they resort to using local GP practices who do not necessarily understand the nature of the work involved. This is particularly important with regard to heavy/physical work in an ageing population. There is a clear need for standardized /specialist occupational health providers. However, there is the obvious issue of cost. Should the state contribute? Or smaller employers club together collectively to get decent, inexpensive provision Under the Disability Discrimination Act there is a need for "reasonable adjustments" to be made following the onset of a debilitating condition or after a disabling accident. However, the outcome is also dependant on the size and resources of an organization. A cynic might suggest that staying small is a logical proposition in these circumstances to enable an opt-out on having to make too much effort in rehabilitation etc.

  Access to rehabilitation is vital, particularly so in light of the Government's stated intention to lessen the burden on the benefit system and encourage people back into the workplace. Again this will need funding in some way and should also be backed up by scientific research into such areas as RSI (not to be confused with MSDs). However, there is no legal requirement to even consider rehabilitation which does not tie in with the Government's aims. With its currently limited resources HSE may not be best placed to deal with this part of the agenda, though it does need a joined up approach if other departments are to be involved.

HAZARDOUS OCCUPATIONS

  The most hazardous occupations in the UK are in three main areas, namely Construction, Agriculture and the Waste Industry. GMB have extensive membership in the first and third and all three have a number of factors in common—heavy manual work, mostly male workers and mobile workforces.

  With regard to the waste industry GMB sits on the HSE body (the Waste Industry S&H Forum—WISH for short) and is part of the attempt to engage the workforce and their management in seeking to change the culture and approach towards safety and welfare issues. The fragmentation of the industry due to privatization and the continued growth in recycling make this a difficult area to monitor.

  GMB was grateful to be asked to the Construction Safety Summit called by the Secretary of State for DWP in September. This was in response to a rise in the number of deaths within the industry the previous year. There was a consensus around the table on the need to work together in improving safety. This would mean ensuring worker involvement and it was interesting that an employers organization raised the issue of using WSAs in the industry. At the time of writing this submission dialogue is continuing on the industry.

  At a Hazards Conference in the Netherlands some years ago the best practice on building sites was to pick a worker, at random, to conduct a weekly site inspection. Whatever the report there were no sanctions placed on the employee. In the Irish Republic, where the safety culture is similar to the UK, it has been shown that the only material difference to improving site safety is the active presence of one or more trade union safety reps. GMB has called for the recognition threshold for safety reps to be lower than for other industrial situations, as it is often on those hard to reach sites that the main problems occur.

MIGRANT WORKERS

  Safety issues for migrant workers are nothing new in the UK. If there is an opportunity for exploitation on some by some then they will invariably take it. To the trade unions it is workers safety that is the issue not the origin of the worker. GMB does recruit within the "new" labour force but there are practical difficulties, not least from employers reluctance to grant access as they may have something to hide. The legislation on Gangmasters, their licensing and their enforcement was welcome but did not go far enough. It should be extended into all industries where migrant, and exploited workers are found. In addition, it would be logical to bring this under the umbrella of the HSE for enforcement purposes (indeed it might make both practical and (extra) resource sense to bring all safety related enforcement under their umbrella eg all aspects of working time).

  GMB has set up specific "nationality" branches to deal with these issues, in the short term, but would seek integration with existing branches as the migrant workers increasingly become assimilated. Currently this is a better way of communicating messages, such as health and safety messages in an understandable way.

  Some industries, the food and drink manufacturers spring to mind, have produced good advice on all sorts of issues including language and cultural difficulties, out of necessity. But again smaller, more difficult to reach, and remote, employers could be a problem.

CONCLUSION

  GMB over the years has always tried to be a critical friend to the HSE and HSC. We have been part of many of the tripartite bodies set up to consult and engage on a range of issues and industries. This continues even as the industrial landscape changes.

  However, we currently fear for the continued competency of the HSE if the proposed cuts in budget and subsequent further cuts in staff take place. All organizations have a tipping point and at a time when there is an increase in the working population, and its diversity, this is not the time for a cut in either frontline or backroom staff. GMB Congress receives an increasing number of motions annually calling for the cuts to enforcement to be reversed. And that is before the current proposals. All taxpayers, including GMB members are entitled in a civilized society to expect protection at work. Where there is trade union recognition this is often more comprehensive than other workplaces, but even there the need to involve HSE can arise. Currently in truth this is the health and safety issue at the top of every trade union agenda.

GMB

January 2008





 
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