Select Committee on Work and Pensions Written Evidence


Supplementary memorandum submitted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA)

1.  INTRODUCTION

  RoSPA welcomes the decision by the House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee to conduct a further inquiry into the work of the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and Executive (HSE). The Inquiry is particularly timely, given the significant challenges and constraints currently faced by HSC/E.

  1.1  RoSPA welcomes the opportunity to submit evidence to the Committee, addressing specific issues on which they are now seeking views and enlarging on some of the key points made previously in RoSPA's short submission to the Committee's recent one-off evidence session looking at HSC/E.

  1.2  RoSPA's main points are as follows:

    —    HSE is a key national resource and a vital health and safety (H&S) leadership body. Government has a responsibility to safeguard its future. Our perception is that, whatever criticisms they might have of particular aspects of HSC/E's activities, all the major organisations involved in the promotion and delivery of better H&S in the UK share this view.

    —    The UK legislative framework for H&S based on risk assessment is fundamentally sound. Difficulties in compliance need to be addressed by ensuring that employers get access to professional H&S advice and services and that staff are fully trained and consulted.

    —    HSE's resources are dangerously stretched. Government must review the savings that could be achieved by targeted increases in spending on HSE ("spend to save"). HSE faces many major strategic tasks which it cannot undertake because of resource constraints.

    —    HSE faces the danger of becoming too reactive. Nevertheless the level of investigation and enforcement needs to be increased as do penalties. At the same time more creative, remedial approaches are also required. HSE needs to address root causes of H&S failure rather than just dealing with immediate risks.

    —    The high hazard sectors demand continuing attention but HSE must avoid becoming a purely high hazards/risk organisation.

    —    Migrant workers' H&S needs close scrutiny to ensure that they receive proper protection. HSE need to address communication issues, particularly in the context of migrant workers who undertake safety critical work.

    —    The Government's agenda for improving the health of people of working age is critically important and HSE has an important part to play but this must not divert them from their key role of ensuring the control of work related health risks and the prevention of work related health damage which is still very substantial.

    —    The new HSE board which is to replace the Commission should establish a National Health and Safety Forum to bring key stakeholders and players together to enhance consultation and to improve delivery of better H&S outcomes.

2.  THE LEGISLATIVE FRAMEWORK

  RoSPA has strongly supported the broad architecture of general duties established by the Health and Safety at Work Act and which stemmed from the Robens Report of 1972. In particular we strongly support the key goal setting duties imposed on employers by Sections 2, 3 and 6 of the Act and key duties in the Management of Health and Safety at Work (MHSW) Regulations, including the duty to carry out risk assessment. In general we have always tended to express our opposition to calls for a greater degree of prescription in health and safety law on the grounds:

    (a)  that it is impossible to prescribe appropriately for the almost infinite variety of hazards and circumstances found within the world of work;

    (b)  that to try to do so would vastly increase the volume of statutory requirements (arguably already very extensive);

    (c)  that moves to greater prescription would detract from the primary duty of employers as "risk creators" to identify hazards, assess risks and put in place appropriate controls, including the appropriate policies, people and procedures necessary to manage health and safety; and

    (d)  that greater prescription would tend to undermine the principle of proportionality of response to H&S issues which is a cardinal feature of the UK regulatory approach. Despite the tendency of EU requirements to increase the prescriptive nature of UK H&S law at many points, the broad goal setting nature of UK law in this area allows duty holders, regulators and other key stakeholders to produce good guidance on how to tackle common problems using standard solutions while at the same time allowing flexibility to tackle novel problems, provided that overall standards of protection are maintained. In short, the spirit of Robens in this area is one which should be valued and preserved, notwithstanding the fact that it poses a number of very real challenges.

  2.1  Despite the wish by many employers for the HSE `to tell them precisely what they want them to do' the success of the HSW Act approach in practice depends on organisations large and small having the internal capacity to manage health and safety as a routine aspect of their operations. They need board level and senior management leadership, effective workforce involvement, including training and consultation—and very significantly they need access to competent advice and support—particularly support for managers. It is this latter requirement in particular—the capacity to help decision makers within a business to understand what H&S law requires in the circumstances of their particular workplace—that poses the greatest challenge. Larger concerns can afford to employ or hire the necessary professional expertise. Very many small firms struggle to cope. Goal setting H&S law based on risk assessment rather than compliance with precise rules can only work if there is sufficient expertise

  2.2  In general HSE's response to this problem has been to concentrate on producing good guidance. In recent time they have expanded their website and focused on the communication of key H&S messages. They have also focused on simplification. In general this is all very positive but it ignores the fact that, in practice, helping employers, particularly small and medium size enterprises, to understand what is required and appropriate for them is heavily dependent on face-to-face interaction between professional H&S advisers and managers. It also depends on staff in organisations having suitable and sufficient H&S training. While RoSPA supports HSE's preference that all businesses, including SMEs, should strive to become as self sufficient as possible and not rely unnecessarily on outside consultants, this approach may have led them to downplay the fundamental importance of one of the key requirements of the MHSW Regulations, namely that all employers should have access to suitable H&S assistance. In RoSPA's view, many of the criticisms levelled at H&S law—for example, that it is too complex, confusing, bureaucratic or restrictive—stem from lack of access to good advice. Poor advice can lead to employers taking inadequate action or conversely becoming unnecessarily risk averse; which in turn can bring sensible H&S into disrepute. Where they have any basis in fact (which is not always the case) many of the stories in the media about H&S being "out of control" stem from instances where employers have not sought advice or have been poorly advised about what is required.

  2.3  A further problem is that in trying to solve the problems of complexity and interpretation by producing more guidance, useful as it is to the initiated, over time this it tends to add to the overall volume of official literature on H&S, compounding the problem of an apparent proliferation of requirements—a fundamental problem which Robens sought to address. It also has to be kept up to date.

  2.4  To tackle some of these issues, particularly for SMEs, HSE needs to do a number of practical things:

    (i)  develop a national H&S services strategy—guiding firms to the help they need and defining the competence of H&S advisers;

    (ii)  develop some core criteria with which to assess the capacity of firms, especially SMEs, to manage H&S (see also section on pre-qualification schemes below); and

    (iii)  offer SMEs the option of developing simple H&S "Action Plans" as a practical alternative to separate H&S policies and risk assessments.

  2.5  RoSPA does not believe that the problem of apparently complex H&S law can or should be solved by attempting to be either more prescriptive or to exempt so called "low risk" businesses from H&S regulation altogether. Quite apart from the problem of defining the "low risk" firm (for example, given the ubiquity of problems such as fire, musculoskeletal disorders, slips at trips, stress, not to mention occupational road risk—over 1,000 deaths a year), every citizen at work has the right to be adequately protected, regardless of the size of enterprise for which they work. Further, far from, being a burden on business, well constructed and balanced H&S regulation actually guides businesses to manage their H&S risks in a systematic way, enabling them to avoid accidents and other losses and promoting operational effectiveness in many other ways.

3.  RESOURCES

  RoSPA is concerned that HSE's resources are in a critical condition. Over the last five years in particular HSE resources have been squeezed. We hear that a further 15-16% cut is mooted over the life of the current Comprehensive Spending Review. This is extremely worrying. Already there are insufficient resources for regular proactive enforcement. HSE's style of work is becoming overwhelmingly reactive but even so, the number of major injury and other events which HSE would have investigated (in line with its operational criteria) is continuing to fall. This is resulting in a widening gap, both in terms of safety learning and justice.

  3.1  The Government cannot afford not to invest properly in H&S. Indeed we believe that, given the massive cost of H&S failures to the UK economy, Government has a duty to undertake a review of the savings that could be achieved by targeted increases in spending on HSE ("spend to save").

  3.2  It is a mistake to believe that improved H&S performance has rendered HSE less relevant. Often quoted figures derived from data gathered under the Reporting of Injuries Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations provide only a partial picture of the overall H&S challenge. Some of the stark facts are:

    —    not just 241 notified fatal injuries to workers in 2006-07, but

    —    over 100 plus members of the public killed in connection with undertakings,

    —    1,000 fatal work-related road injuries (involving workers and the public),

    —    328,000 reportable injuries (according to Labour Force Survey 2006-07),

    —    perhaps as many as 12,000 to 24,000 deaths due to work related health damage, particularly occupational cancer,

    —    one million work related injuries (all severities),

    —    two million cases of work related ill health (mainly musculo-skeletal disorders and stress) which in total result in:

    —    36 million working days lost (30 million due to ill health and 6 million for accidents), and

    —    £20-30 billion or between 2-3% of GDP!

  3.3  HSE is a unique repository of hazard knowledge and H&S expertise. RoSPA remains concerned at a major loss of expertise and corporate memory in HSE due to retirement, re-organisations and downsizing (over 500 posts have been lost in the past five years). We accept that HSE must make sound decisions about how best to use their assets but we are particularly concerned at the further loss of experienced staff that is likely to result from the move of HSE's headquarters from Rose Court in London to Bootle. The financial arguments in favour of the move need to be balanced with the very practical reasons why a national leadership organisation such a HSE needs to retain a significant London presence.

  3.4  The danger is that HSE will become unsustainably stretched in delivering its core functions such as those around nuclear, offshore and major hazards safety and that its capacity to seize fresh opportunities to further meet the evolving needs of the UK workforce, the public and the economy in general will be severely compromised.

  3.5  HSE has many major tasks to do, not just to regulate in the traditional sense but to help develop all those other vital elements in the UK H&S system which actually help ensure the delivery of safe and healthy working in all workplaces in the UK. HSE in this sense is a "prime mover", but in practice the delivery of the targets which it has agreed with the rest of Government depends on many other players. HSE needs sufficient resources to work effectively with those players to ensure the delivery of results.

  3.6  For example, HSE has been tasked to help lead the Government's plans for health and work (see also below) and the reduction of sickness absence generally. They can only do this by working with other bodies that share in this key agenda. But at the same time the number of occupational health specialists has been drastically reduced. There are now only seven full time occupational physicians working in HSE as medical inspectors and 25 occupational health nurses working as medical inspectors.

  3.7  Above all HSE has a major task to help bring H&S standards in small firms up to the level now enjoyed by workers in most larger concerns which have in-house H&S support. It needs to be working with clients, contractors and other players in the market to rationalise and simplify H&S pre-qualification schemes (where RoSPA is currently doing research) and contractor personnel passport schemes. RoSPA's recent work in this area shows that there is massive "win/win" potential here—to both cut "third party red tape" and improve H&S outreach to hundreds of thousands of SMEs.

  3.8  Similarly there is a real need for HSE to review bodies which are providing H&S training, auditing and certification, for example, to check on standards, effectiveness and whether key themes are being covered. It is mistaken in our view to assume that these vital inputs to the achievement of better H&S will be delivered automatically by the market without substantial additional HSE support and guidance.

  3.9  HSE also has a massive role to play in promoting safety and risk education not just in schools and colleges but in vocational training and above all, in businesses schools. Future business leaders need to understand effective H&S risk management. HSE resources devoted to this vital agenda have been cut back. Despite its very useful work in promoting principles of "sensible safety" and combating misleading myths about H&S regulation, HSE still has a major task to help raise standards of safety and risk literacy, especially among key decision makers and opinion formers.

  3.10  RoSPA has continued to press the view (shared by colleagues in HSE and in business and the trades unions) that here needs to be a much greater focus on raising awareness of the key role of directors. We strongly supported the introduction of the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act (2007) as a further incentive to help motivate those businesses whose approach top H&S still leaves much to be desired. We have welcomed, as a positive step forward, the development of joint guidance by HSE and the Institute of Directors on director's health and safety responsibilities. The impact of this initiative needs to be closely monitored. If it is not successful in changing the behaviour of directors and boards towards H&S further measures may be necessary.

  3.11  HSE needs additional resources to work closely with key stakeholders to raise awareness of the guidance and also to facilitate further business to business learning, for example, from and between higher performers in H&S. HSE needs more resources to help improve the capability of other players such as trade associations, colleges, safety groups, trades unions etc who together have a massive role in the delivery of better H&S performance for the UK. There is a real need, for example, to develop better interactive E based systems for business to business learning from accidents and incidents. All this requires major outreach effort by HSE, including mobilising others outside who can deliver key messages.

  3.12  As a key part of this HSE needs to continue to promote H&S as fundamentally important part of business performance, requiring companies to have clear targets, evidence of H&S management system status (including policies, leadership, workforce involvement, access to advice and services etc) and accessible reporting on performance. This too requires resources, particularly in the area of communications.

  3.13  HSE has an important role to play in participating in more joined up working with other key safety agendas, not just safety and risk education and the whole health, and work and well-being agenda, but in prevention of falls of older people, managing work related road safety, promoting accident prevention outside work, creating safer communities projects and so on. While it may not be their core business there is much that HSE can do to help save lives and reduce injuries beyond the work sphere.

  3.13  And looking beyond the UK, as an immensely well respected organisation internationally, HSE has a key role to play in sharing its expertise and knowledge as part of worldwide efforts to raise standards, particularly in emerging economies where accident and disease rates are quite horrendous. RoSPA continues to press for the Government to make H&S a much stronger part of the sustainable global development agenda, especially given the UK's world lead in the area—but this cannot be achieved without investing in HSE.

4.  INSPECTION, ENFORCEMENT AND PROSECUTIONS

  RoSPA is concerned that HSE continues to be attacked in many parts of the media—quite unfairly in our view—as allegedly bureaucratic, incompetent, overweening and authoritarian. Indeed at times there seems almost to be a conspiracy against HSE in particular (and occupational H&S in general). HSE continues to rebut these allegations very professionally but they keep coming. We find this stream of innuendo and scepticism about HSE's role extremely worrying—sinister even.

  4.1  It is worth recalling that over many years, including most recently in the Hampton review, HSE has been found time and again to be an exemplary regulator whose practices many other government bodies are advised to follow. This does not mean that they cannot improve the way in which they work or indeed develop new approaches but suggestions that HSE are disproportionate or capricious in the way they operate or indeed, from an alternative perspective, that they are unnecessarily lenient in their dealings with employers, are fundamentally mistaken.

  4.2  In general, RoSPA supports HSE's approach of targeting enforcement towards businesses with the highest risks and the worst records. Nevertheless much more targeted enforcement is still needed and there also need to be more creative approaches to alternative penalties and remedies. But this means HSE needs the time to diagnose underlying causes of accidents and develop systematic remedies rather than just reacting to accidents and incidents by requiring rectification of immediate shortcomings. HSE needs to be able to develop much better data and intelligence not just on accidents and incidents or on ill health but on hazardous exposures, on efficacy of solutions and so on.

  4.3  On the other hand, while inspection and enforcement action are key elements in motivating organisations to take H&S seriously, it would be counterproductive if HSE were to devote all their resources to inspection. If the policy aim were to visit every workplace periodically within an agreed timeframe, this could actually be bad for health and safety performance overall, especially if available resources were spread too thinly. Notwithstanding the need for more resources for enforcement work HSE needs also to be able to develop outreach work, wherever possible in partnership with appropriate intermediaries such as employers' organisations, trades unions, safety organisations, and local safety groups etc to raise awareness and spread good practice. HSE also need to be able to reinforce the exemplary effect of enforcement action by "naming and shaming" and by putting HSE's internal performance and risk ratings of organisations in the public domain. Other key stakeholders need to be able to see clearly how organisations stand in relation to HSE and H&S generally.

  4.4  In general RoSPA favours the imposition of more severe penalties for health and safety offences, especially where this is necessary to signal Society's disapproval of cases of negligence and neglect. On too many occasions the level of fine imposed does not reflect the gravity of the offence committed, especially when compared with the level of fine imposed on organisations for offences in other spheres where no harms to people have occurred. At the same time however we also favour the introduction of innovative approaches to sentencing which embody suspended sentences linked to supervised remedial programmes.

  4.5  We agree in general that the removal of remaining areas crown immunity should be a target but in the meantime there should be greater openness and publicity around crown notice and censure processes so that the public, including victims and other stakeholders can be involved.

  4.6  We accept that achieving an effective division of responsibility between HSE and Local Authorities in the enforcement of H&S law is difficult and needs to be kept under review as do arrangements for liaison and technical support between HSE and LAs. In general we favour the idea of more formal partnership agreements between HSE and LAs but in practice the viability of this approach depends on ensuring allocation of sufficient resources.

5.  HAZARDOUS OCCUPATIONS (CONSTRUCTION, OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS, CHEMICALS INDUSTRY)

  HSE inevitably has to concentrate its resources on tackling H&S issues in those areas of highest risk, including sectors which pose high levels risks to workers and activities with potential to cause major harms to the public and/or the environment. It is important however that in doing so that HSE does not become a purely high hazard/risk organisation. Indeed, from an historical perspective, many of the important lessons learned in areas such as the nuclear industry have helped to inform wider approaches to H&S generally (for example, risk assessment, substances hazardous to health, safety management systems, safety culture and so on).

  5.1  HSE faces a major challenge in construction. This industry, which employs about 10% of the working population, is vital to the country's growth and future prosperity, has a wholly disproportionate share of the UK's fatal and serious injuries. This is far from inevitable. If the industry in general were able to perform in line with the standards achieved by the best companies (including those that are winners in RoSPA's long established H&S awards scheme) the rate of injury could be cut by about two thirds. Health standards too could be dramatically improved. The recent rise in the RIDDOR casualty figures for the industry seems to have been due to an increase in serious accidents in house building and refurbishment. The Secretary of State at DWP has taken an important lead in bringing the key players together to create a renewed effort and we hope that he personally will continue to call all the key actors to account. The build for the London Olympics is a major challenge and the UK's standing in H&S will be open not just to UK by international scrutiny. As mentioned above, HSE will need more resources if it is to give an effective lead and reverse the current trend of fatalities in the construction industry.

  5.2  Many of the same points can be made about tackling health and safety risks in the offshore oil and gas industry. Despite the progress which has been achieved in establishing a `safety case based' regime offshore and establishing co-operative working between all parties, there is also a danger than complacency could lead to further disasters as well arise in more conventional personal injury accidents.

  5.3  The same general point can be made about the maintenance of health and safety standards in the chemicals industry, especially in the light of Buncefield and the lessons to emerge from the Baker Inquiry in the BP Texas City fire and explosion.

6.  MIGRANT WORKERS

  RoSPA does not have any quantitative evidence to show whether or not migrant workers are more at risk of occupational accidents than resident UK citizens. Nevertheless there is much worrying anecdotal evidence as well as the evidence that emerges from time to time into particular accidents and tragedies. HSE needs to devote more resources into studying this issues and monitoring trends. Migrant workers have both a right to be properly protected while at work; they also have a duty to work safely. HSE needs to focus on key issues such as communication including helping employers to assess the level of written and verbal communication skill which migrant workers may need in order to work safely, for example when carrying out safety critical tasks in a team context. Helping migrant workers to communicate effectively for H&S purposes should be an important part of compliance with key parts of the MHSW Regulations.

7.  OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH

  RoSPA supports enthusiastically the Government's aim of improving the health of the working age population, focusing on the workplace to help change health related behaviours and tackle issues such as obesity, diet, exercise, smoking cessation, alcohol and substance abuse and mental health problems. We await with interest the report of Dame Carol Black who has been commissioned to examine this issue and make recommendations for action. This is obviously a very important agenda, not just to individuals and Society but the UK economy as a whole. But it is a much wider agenda than traditional Occupational Health. There are different views therefore as to the extent fresh action in this field should be `decoupled' from on-going efforts to improve mainstream health and safety management, particularly in small firms. Clearly there is still a great deal to do to improve the working environment and to tackle major work related health damage issues such as cancer, respiratory sensitisation, dermatitis, noise induced hearing loss, stress and MSDs and many other conditions which are caused or made worse through poor work design and/or organisation etc. In RoSPA's view HSE must continue to focus its efforts in these areas and ensure that all work is "good work" and does not lead to damage to health. But given that many contemporary occupational health problems have `mixed causation' (work and non-work causes) HSE also has to work with other agencies who are seeking to promote wider health messages. The workplace is a powerful arena in which to raise awareness and promote change but equally firms that have not yet put the necessary policies, people procedures in place to tackle basic H&S management will be unlikely to respond positively and imaginatively to invitations to undertake rehabilitation or workplace health promotion (or if they do, action will not be sustained). Basic H&S has got to come first but equally there is much that can be done to expand the wider health role of workplace H&S such as H&S advisers, safety representatives and even occupational first aiders.

  7.1  Action to promote the health of the working age population has obviously to go wider than core H&S and it would be a mistake not to integrate it to the greatest extent possible with long term work to raise basic H&S standards. Nevertheless it is important that, in seeking to tackle wider health issues affecting workers or to embed vocational rehabilitation in the workplace, HSE is not diverted from tackling its main task which is to prevent health damage caused by work. It needs to be recognised that in meeting its PSA targets for ill health and days lost per worker HSE is heavily dependent on the work of many others. To require HSE to take responsibility for the whole OH agenda is unrealistic. We hope that Dame Carol's report will point a new way forward based on joined up working particularly with the NHS and the employment services of DWP.

8.  OTHER MATTERS

  While welcoming the modernisation of the Health and Safety Commission by merging it into a new HSE Board, RoSPA has expressed concerned that this should not lead to any dilution of the Commission's tripartite approach to policy making and delivery. Indeed, in our consultation response we stressed that since the setting up of the original Commission in the early 1970s, the range of key players and stakeholders involved in H&S has grown. RoSPA sees merit in the idea of creating a permanent stakeholder forum of key players, not only as a way of enhancing HSE's excellent approach to consultation but of helping forge new partnerships and relationships. We believe the time is now right to establish a National Health and Safety Forum to help HSE tackle some of the major challenges which lie ahead.

RoSPA

January 2008





 
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