Health and safety reforms could be hazardous, warn unions

Trade unions have warned that proposed changes to health and safety legislation could endanger workers in some industries.

Prime Minister David Cameron has welcomed the recommendations of a report by Lord Young, Common Sense, Common Safety, which aims to clarify existing regulations and ensure they are taken more seriously by employers and the public, as well as taking “the burden” off small businesses. However, union leaders have warned that the changes could be dangerous.

One of the suggestions by Lord Young is to provide simpler interactive risk assessments for employers operating in low-risk environments, such as offices.

However, unions have claimed that Lord Young has missed an opportunity to improve workplace safety. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber called the report a “grave disappointment”, adding: “The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. Every year 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of their work and at any one time over two million people are suffering ill-health because of their jobs.”

Hope Daley, Unison’s head of health and safety, said: “Lord Young shows no awareness of the problems caused by occupational ill-health and no real understanding of the level of injury or ill-health in schools, classrooms or offices. Schools and offices have very high levels of stress-related illness, and many people suffer from arm, back and neck injuries. Between them these are responsible for around three-quarters of work-related sickness absence.”

Fears were also expressed over the impact on high-risk workplaces such as the construction sector of plans to loosen regulations on the reporting of injuries.

Alan Ritchie, general secretary of UCATT, said: “Lord Young has failed to grasp why safety legislation is so vital in dangerous industries such as construction. If he had, he would be demanding greater resources to protect workers and to tighten existing legislation.”

Lord Young’s report is the result of a request by the Prime Minister to undertake a review of so-called “compensation culture” and the implementation of health and safety legislation in the UK.

Mr Cameron commented: “Good health and safety is vitally important but all too often straightforward legislation designed to protect people from major hazards has been extended inappropriately to cover every walk of life, no matter how low the risk.”

For more information on health and safety laws, read XpertHR’s employer reference manual.

Summary of Lord Young’s recommendations

  • Produce clear separate guidance under the Code of Practice focused on small and medium businesses engaged in lower risk activities.
  • Professionalise health and safety consultants with a qualification requirement that all consultants should be accredited to professional bodies.
  • The current raft of health and safety regulations should be consolidated into a single set of accessible regulations.
  • Simplify the risk assessment procedure for low hazard workplaces and provide simpler interactive risk assessments for low hazard workplaces online.
  • Create periodic checklists that enable businesses operating in low hazard environments to check and record their compliance with regulations as well as online video demonstrations of best practice in form completion.
  • Develop similar checklists for use by voluntary organisations.
  • Exempt employers from risk assessments for employees working from home in a low hazard environment.
  • Exempt self-employed people in low hazard businesses from risk assessments.

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