Safety confusion for small firms

Many small businesses remain uncertain and confused about their health and safety responsibilities under the law – ignorance that is potentially costing them millions of pounds a year, a government report has said.

The report from the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council (RRAC) recommended that improving the confidence of small organisations in their health and safety practices could potentially lead to savings of between £70-140m from “unnecessary” consultancy fees.

Better confidence and understanding of health and safety law could also reduce the management costs of small businesses by some £50m a year, it said.

There were three causes to all this uncertainty, the RRAC added: too many different and conflicting messages coming from government, the media; insurers and health and safety ‘experts’, consultants who exaggerated health and safety risks; and small organisations’ own lack of confidence in understanding and managing risks.

“If small organisations don’t understand what they need to do, they may do too much – wasting money, or too little – failing to protect their employees and the public,” said the council’s Sarah Veale.

Judith Hackitt, chair of the Health and Safety Executive, added: “We already have a huge amount of work under way to improve advice available to employers – making our official publications free to download, debunking misleading myths, and exploring ways of ensuring that advice is available from accredited, competent sources. We have also begun dialogue with insurers.”

Small business bodies welcomed the findings. The Forum of Private Business said the findings matched what it was hearing on the ground. Chief executive Phil Orford said: “While we would argue that much of the confusion felt by smaller businesses in connection with health and safety law is brought about by the legislation itself, we do accept that a certain amount of scaremongering and exaggeration goes on.”

Despite the recession, three-quarters of large UK businesses are still prepared to spend money on external consultants for their health and safety needs, and nine in 10 have retained a dedicated person to focus solely on health and safety, according to a poll by Aviva Risk Management Solutions.

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