HR treads a hazardous path

The quango responsible for health and safety has to have different preoccupations in today’s workplace

There are few reminders of the 1970s workplace still with us today. Acas endures to mediate the odd industrial squabble, but most of its work now focuses on individual rights, rather than collective disputes. The commissions on race and gender equality carry on, too – but they are soon to be gobbled up by the new Human Rights Commission. Survival is tough for the institutions of a restless workplace, as they adapt to changing needs.

Spare a thought, then, for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as it draws close to its 30th birthday. Set up for a manufacturing economy, it is now rethinking its future in a society dominated by services.

In 2002-3, there were 226 deaths at work – two-thirds fewer than in 1974. And while 40 million working days were lost, only 7 million of them were due to injuries and accidents. Today, it is the many unverifiable agonies of the modern workplace – stress, back pain, musculoskeletal problems – that account for the vast majority.

The quango’s role is mutating as the need for toughness on safety gives way to greater emphasis on health. It tends to punish less, and advise and prevent rather more.

In 1999-2000, the HSE and local authorities put out 17,400 ‘enforcement notices’ against slack employers. Last year, 12,740 were issued. It is a similar story with prosecutions. In 1999-2000, 2,500 prosecutions were filed. Last year, they were down to 1,500. The fines imposed on employers are also getting cheaper. Last year, the average fine was £8,828 – more than £2,000 less than 2002.

With a budget of £260m (roughly 20p per worker a week) most organisations are unlikely ever to experience the inspector’s knock on the door.

Take out the specialists dealing with rail, nuclear and petrochemical industries, and just 826 inspectors are expected to deal with 750,000 workplaces. Councils have an additional 1,200 for the 1.2 million workplaces they are responsible for (such as shops and offices). Such is this Herculean task that the organisation’s mantra has become ‘the need to say no’.

The question of how to prioritise is the current preoccupation of the HSE, and its many finger-wagging critics.

A document published recently that sets out the organisation’s strategy to 2010 carries remarks likely to stagger anyone who thought the job of the HSE was to regulate health and safety. It wants to look at new ways of ‘providing effective support free from the fear of enforcement’ and move towards ‘securing compliance voluntarily’. The HSE does not want to intervene ‘where the risks are of low significance, well understood and properly managed’. It wants to concentrate resources on major hazard industries, leaving areas of public safety up to the civil law. Weirdly, the document even pledges to take action against ‘those who are over-zealous’ in the application of the health and safety system.

Critics on the union-affiliated left say this amounts to a retreat from enforcing criminal law. It is “akin to the police withdrawing from investigating stabbings”, according to Rory O’Neill, editor of Hazards magazine. Fewer than one in five major injuries are investigated at the moment, he notes.

However, the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers (APIL) has similar criticisms. President of the company, David Marshall, says the doctrine of ‘proportionate enforcement’ does little to tackle careless employers.

“Even if a worker has not been seriously injured, treating breaches in this way gives out the wrong message,” he argues.

These are valid points. The document might have gone some way to meeting them if it had not been so desperate to sound slavishly business-friendly. Instead of ‘the fear of enforcement is an important motivator for some employers’, as the document says, how much truer it would have been to state ‘the fear of enforcement is the only motivator for many employers’.

However, another way of looking at the strategy is that it only openly expresses a shift in thinking that was implicit in the statistics anyway. With slender resources, prioritising is unavoidable. It is not that the HSE is giving up on enforcing compliance, it is just that it intends to focus its attention in a world of work that is, after all, a lot less dangerous than it used to be.

It is understandable why the HSE wants to try a different tack, with death and injury figures reaching a plateau in recent years. More of the same is unlikely to break the mould, whereas thinking of new ways to operate the relationship between regulator and regulated are at least worth a try.

Giving advice to help employers navigate the minefield of risk assessment without inviting a plague of clipboard-carrying inspectors must be a sensible move – at least for some employers. Similarly, developing a culture of health and safety norms should be better value for money than wielding the cudgel of enforcement.

Concentration on the more risky sectors also makes sense. It is no scandal if paper-pushing offices are never inspected. But it would be if chemical plants escaped so lightly; if whistleblowers gave up on the hope of an appropriate response; or if serious breaches were not punished severely.

Yet in many ways these issues are simply about allocating resources as work evolves and workplaces multiply and shrink. The greater challenges of adaptation are still to come: how can a society attempt to regulate stress?

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