Health and Safety in Scotland

Written evidence submitted by the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group, Stirling University

Executive Summary

1. The human costs and consequences of injuries and illnesses that are work-caused or work-related in Scotland remain considerable and grossly under-reported. This burden hits hardest those already facing other major health and socio-economic inequalities and contributes to such inequalities. Countries of a similar size to Scotland like Finland demonstrate that far higher health and safety at work standards can be achieved.

2. Existing enforcement and related stakeholder mechanisms and policies have failed to improve the record in any major way: they are strong on rhetoric, weak in practice/delivery. HSE prioritisation, because of cuts, of high risk injury industries can also miss high risk workplaces for occupational disease. Employers have the primary responsibility for ensuring health and safety at work. Good employers can and do achieve good standards. Bad employers must be increasingly aware that for many of the injuries and diseases they create in their workforces, the chances of inspection, enforcement and prosecution in Scotland will be especially low. Bad work is bad for your health and safety and much still exists in Scotland. Neither HSE Scotland nor local authority inspectorates (LAIs), resources and policy have been able to progress matters. New approaches are needed and further cuts in HSE should be avoided.

3. HSE governance has been poor.  HSE resources should not be diverted away from core prevention, information and enforcement activities to broader health promotion campaigns: these should be funded by other agencies. The situation will deteriorate further with financial pressures on the public sector both as employers and enforcers, and pressures on the sick and disabled to return to work when not fit to do so because Work Capability Assessments are flawed.

4. Linkages between HSE and the NHS Scotland (hospital and primary care) and other bodies - to better identify injuries at work and occupational diseases - should be improved to identify and hold accountable employers who are persistent poor OHS performers. These developments should also be connected to access in Scotland to at least one funded and independent OHS advice centre for vulnerable employees.

5. ‘Good health and safety is good business’ as HSE has demonstrated. Hence UK government should draw back from further OHS cuts on and deregulation. HSE Scotland lacks sufficient staff, resources and effective practices to support OHS especially in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and for employees in union and non-unionised workplaces, to ensure healthy and safe working conditions.

Effectiveness of health and safety regulation in Scotland and likely impact of HSE cuts

6. The Scottish record of workplace fatalities and serious injuries is poor compared to the rest of the UK (NAO 2010). Occupationally-caused and occupationally-related ill-health estimates remain substantial. Low staff numbers, staff training and staff time in HSE and local authority inspectorates compound weak policy and limited practice. There are major questions about the past effectiveness and responsiveness of the HSE leadership in Scotland. This does not relate to field staff but to HSE management where governance has been poor. The recent Gill public enquiry evidence on the 2004 ICL/’Stockline’ disaster where 9 workers were killed and over 30 injured, exposed major failings by employers and HSE managers with repeated HSE errors on enforcement and follow-up. Gill and other independent reports also exposed how courts fail to obtain accurate pictures either of failings by bad employers or their finances. In Scotland and elsewhere if workers took a dog to work and they and the dog were killed, criminal prosecutions for the dog’s death would be far more likely than for the death of the workers. The ICL/’Stockline disaster also demonstrated serious failings in the capacity of the HSE to operationalise effective consultation on hazards with non-unionised employees who are in a highly vulnerable position in the country.

7. HSE Scotland all too often did not emerge as a champion for OHS but rather as an apologist for failures to protect workers effectively. This is unlike the current situation in the USA where OSHA leaders reflect a commitment to raising health and safety standards. HSE recommended 43 cases for prosecution in Scotland in 2009-10, compared to 75 in 2007-08 and 84 in 2008-09.3 (NAO 2011:8). The decline in these figures is greater than the decline in officially reported injuries which are anyway accepted by HSE and others to be gross under-estimates. The NAO report on the HSE in Scotland does not provide adequate information about occupational diseases in the country because the diagnosis, recognition and recording of such diseases are completely inadequate, lagging far behind Finland for instance.

8. If Scotland has more workers in the high risk sectors of agriculture and construction and has around 8.5% of the UK workforce, often in remote and rural areas, it is difficult to understand why the Scottish HSE has only 7% of the HSE workforce. In some respects the current UK HSE agricultural campaign - relating to ‘take the promise to come home safely’ and linked to tying ribbons and attending church services to pray for the survival of those in agriculture - indicates the major failure of that body to function effectively to protect farmers, self-employed contractors and farm workers. This is against a backdrop of several recent fatalities and serious injuries in Scottish agriculture.

9. There should be an end to dissipation of HSE funds in wider workplace health promotion in Scotland and a re-orientation of such bodies back to core activities. This should mean greater focus on major occupational disease and occupational injury prevention activity in conjunction with a strengthened HSE. Funding from employers, the education sector and health should support broader health promotion campaigns on such things as exercise, food and alcohol, not the scarce resources of HSE Scotland.

Roles and division of responsibilities between the different bodies responsible for health and safety in Scotland.

10. Inter-agency working remains in some respects problematic in Scotland (Independent Report on ICL/Stockline 2008). The relationship between HSE and LAIs may be especially problematic in terms of HSE hoping to offload some of its work onto LAIs and also expecting LAIs to adopt similar policies and practices to their own. Enforcement in both sectors has at times been poor. The linkage between HSE, the NHS in Scotland, local authorities and bodies such as SEPA has also failed in terms of addressing a number of major OHS problems emanating from a range of industries where workplace and wider pollution exist. Examples would include plastics factories in residential areas, electronics manufacture, oil refining and chemicals, open caste mining and the waste industry (Watterson et al 2006; Watterson et al 2008b). The NHS in Scotland picks up the bill for poor health and safety in terms of sickness and injury.

11. HSE, health, local authority planning and building controls, the fire brigade, SEPA all need better means to exchange information about their sectoral work and how that work may inform risk assessments and risk management of numerous workplaces in Scotland. Effective policies and procedures should link HSE with Scottish Government Health bodies specifically on occupational health and safety. Requirements for information on workplaces where problems have been identified should be shared across agencies and more widely with employees. Mechanisms to do this are not currently effective. A good multi-disciplinary Scottish occupational health service linked to NHS is needed that covers all employees in the country with prevention as its core principle not diluted health promotion geared to lifestyle factors.

Impact of health and safety regulation upon business

12. Research shows that regulation and more importantly its enforcement helps to maintain and raise occupational health and safety standards (Davis: Sussex University). Other research has shown that many SMEs, when questioned in detail, find the role of HSEIs of benefit: with regulation comes information and advice which are invaluable (James et al. Middlesex University). The rhetoric against regulation is currently strong but the evidence base for it is weak. The media representation of occupational and environmental health and safety is often wrong and usually trivial. There is a frequent lack of coverage of major health and safety problems that exist in Scotland beyond the off shore oil industry, fishing and quarrying. We recently surveyed media coverage of occupational health in Scotland and found it was minimal. This helps to skew political, public and even OHS professional priorities.

Data on health and safety matters in Scotland & impact on the understanding of potential health and safety problems.

13. Very poor data exist on occupational diseases in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK. What data do exist are on occasions ignored or downplayed by HSE (O’Neill et al 2007). This partly relates to resources, partly to staff training and partly due to the policies and practices of HSE. However, data and estimates do exist in HSE that indicate they should prioritise matters differently. Using WHO and EASHW current estimates of occupational diseases and injuries, far more people die in Scotland from work place conditions, than from suicides, murders and road traffic fatalities combined (Watterson et al 2008a). HSE currently apparently has one part-time medical staff member dealing with around 2.5 million workers in the whole of Scotland.

HSE research on effective interventions.

14. HSE core activities should relate to disease and injury prevention which must also entail effective and relevant provision of information to employers and employees and enforcement and prosecution of offenders where necessary. HSE’s successful and low cost ‘infoline’ is for example about to be cut and, in rural and remote areas, such services are critical.  The inspection visits of HSE staff in Scotland and elsewhere have been steadily eroded in terms of what they have time and resources to check on. HSE recently ran a multi-million pound slips, trips and falls campaign yet ignored major occupational disease problems, such as lung diseases and cancers, in Scotland. It would seem that such campaigns squander resources and are not likely to produce effective interventions in ways that regular pro-active visits, inspections and enforcement will on the major causes of poor OHS in the country. 

15. HSE need to set up investigations of more problem plants especially SMEs like ICL/Stockline so that inspectors, regulators, workers, ex-workers and communities may be warned about and take action on known and suspect hazards and safety threats. This does not require additional legislation as it is a policy matter.

Comparative effectiveness of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in Scotland with rest of UK linked to managing health and safety in a devolutionary context

16. Better mechanisms are needed in Scotland for information exchange, policy development based on evidence and enforcement. This will ensure greater effectiveness and use of resources targeted to often neglected but major problems. Hence HSE organisation needs to have more effective working with  local authorities, NHS Scotland which is not reserved, SEPA which is not reserved, and other Scottish specific agencies dealing with business and the environment that either impact on or are influenced by work environment issues.

17. It is notable that bodies such as SEPA have been able to function well as a devolved agency in Scotland. A devolved HSE in Scotland with greater accountability for its policies relating to enforcement and prosecutions on workplace injuries and diseases may be possible.

International comparisons with similar sized countries/similar risk industries

18.The UK global OHS ranking - drawing on WHO, ILO and World Bank data - was  30th out of 176  (Maplecroft Global Health and Safety Risk Index  2009). Indicators used included work related fatalities and injuries, deaths from work related diseases, health expenditure, life expectancy, government effectiveness, regulatory quality and ILO conventions ratified. UK ranked just 20th out of 30 OECD countries. Denmark with a population of 5.5 million came first with Finland, population of around 5 million, scoring highly and sharing some geographical characteristics with Scotland. Finland, despite cuts in its own OHS agencies, still remains a world leader on occupational health, provides greater information and support to employers and employees, and records and monitors occupational diseases far better than in the UK. As Finland and Denmark are independent countries of similar population size to Scotland, they demonstrate what Scotland could achieve if the UK and Scottish Governments committed themselves to the task of good worker health and safety.

May 2011

Prepared 6th July 2011