Health and safety: Compulsion – a step too far?

Top level responsibility for health and safety was in the spotlight last week as two reports drew differing conclusions about the obligations incumbent on company directors.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) published guidance for directors on health and safety in advance of the upcoming Corporate Manslaughter Act. On the same day, the construction trade union Ucatt published a report showing that if more directors took responsibility for health and safety, lives could be saved.

Ucatt’s main gripe was that there were no statutory obligations on directors, meaning the issue was not being dealt with thoroughly at boardroom level.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of Ucatt, said: “This damning report demonstrates the government’s failure to introduce statutory legal duties forcing directors to take responsibility for their companies’ health and safety policies is literally costing workers their lives.”

The report says since voluntary guidance on directors’ duties was introduced in 2001, only 44% of companies have appointed an individual director.

Geraint Day, head of health at the IoD, says guidance should not be statutory, but the document it issued with the HSC would have legal status. “It replaces previous guidance for directors,” he says, “and if you follow it you will be doing enough to comply with legal obligations.”

Day says his members do take health and safety seriously, “but we want more of them to take it seriously”.

“We want health and safety to have the same importance at board level as tax, and HR and other issues,” he adds. “Some boards do have a health and safety director. We want this culture embedded in the organisation.”

Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, says employers that meet existing obligations under current health and safety legislation will not fall foul of the Corporate Manslaughter Act.

“The existing health and safety framework is robust,” he says. “But anything that raises the profile of directors in SMEs has to be a good thing.”

The IoD’s guidance offers a four-point agenda for embedding the essential health and safety principles, a summary of legal liabilities, a checklist of key questions, and a list of resources and references for implementing the guidance in full. It is available on the IoD’s website.

The Ucatt report said that when positive action at director level was taken it led to an average 25% reduction in accidents. It said that on average over the last five years seven directors/senior managers had been convicted of health and safety offences against a background of more than 200 worker deaths a year.

John Pond, chief HSE officer at electricity company EDF Energy, says the IoD’s document reinforces what it already believed was a key part of health and safety policy in the company.

“All executive managers are fully aware of their responsibilities under existing health and safety legislation and are undertaking a review of the further duties that may be placed upon them by the Corporate Manslaughter Act,” he adds.

Pond said he did not believe further statutory guidance was necessary “as the area of directors’ and managers’ duties is already comprehensively covered by existing legislation and statutory guidance”.

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