MPs speak out on occupational health

The Health and Safety Executive is using “flawed and incomplete data” to inform occupational health policy and needs to take immediate action to address the issue, MPs have warned1.

According to the Work and Pensions Committee: “It [is] unacceptable that HSE acknowledges that it makes policy decisions on flawed and incomplete data. RIDDOR is not fulfilling its role and HSE is failing in its duties to enforce obligations under the Regulations. We call on HSE to urgently address the shortcomings in its data collection.”

The committee heard that the HSE uses several sources of occupational ill‑health data, including the Labour Force Survey, specialist reporting schemes such as The Health and Occupation Reporting network (THOR), the Industrial Injuries Disablement Benefit scheme and RIDDOR. However, the Department for Work and Pensions believes that more than 95% of cases covered by RIDDOR go unreported.

Giving evidence to the committee, Steve Bailey of the British Occupational Hygiene Society said: “Current reporting requirements under RIDDOR are wholly inadequate, they only apply to a relatively small list of named occupational diseases in specific workplace situations. It does not begin to capture the scope of occupational health scenarios.”

The committee also expressed concern about numbers of occupational health professionals, both in and outside the HSE. In written evidence, the Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) told the committee that “what remains” of the Employment Medical Advisory Service (EMAS) is too small to give effective backup to HSE inspectors on occupational health issues. “The decline in EMAS, and the expert knowledge therein, has significant implications for the future of occupational health in Great Britain,” the IOM said.

Other witnesses said they believed that, by running down EMAS, the HSE was failing to invest sufficiently in the future of occupational medicine as a profession. According to Professor Raymond Agius of Manchester University: “Historically, EMAS, within the HSE, used to provide excellent postgraduate training opportunities for aspiring specialists in occupational medicine competent both in the prevention or management of work-related ill health and in the rehabilitation of workers back to work. For several years now, EMAS/HSE offers no such jobs and instead relies on attempting to attract doctors with prior postgraduate training in private industry or in the NHS, without itself contributing to expanding the limited pool of such trained doctors.”

The HSE’s chief executive, Geoffrey Podger, could not reassure the committee on EMAS’s future. “We are certainly trying to make some expansion of EMAS but it will be a small expansion. We are actually looking to have a part-time chief medical officer and ultimately to expand by two or three posts, but we are in no way thinking of going back to the level of provision that was previously there,” he said.

1House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee (2008). The role of the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive in regulating workplace health and safety

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