Do budget cuts equal cuts in safety enforcement?

There are several issues in the United Kingdom at the moment that could affect workplace safety, not including Lord Young’s OHS review.

Great Britain is to undergo enormous funding cuts to most of the civil service.  The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) is to have its budget cut by 35% according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC).

Another issue is that a TUC survey has found:

“Almost half (49%) of safety representatives said that as far as they know, a health and safety inspector has never inspected their workplace…”

The TUC says that the same survey indicates that the threat of inspection is a major motivator to OHS improvements.  In a media release on 1 November 2010 TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said:
“Knowing that an inspector is likely to visit is one of the key drivers to changing employers’ behaviour and making the workplace safer and healthier.  It is a scandal that nearly half of workplaces in the UK have never been visited by a health and safety inspector.”
And those inspectors are most likely to come from the HSE .  Data from the HSE shows that the number of enforcement notices has hovered around 10,000 each year for the last decade.  The number of prosecutions over that time have steadily declined.
What is really required is the number of the inspections undertaken by the HSE but this information is not included in the latest annual statistics.
If safety improvements are made in businesses due to the threat of an OHS inspection by a regulators, how does the HSE plan to keep the pressure on when it will lose over a third of its budget?
If it chooses to maintain its inspection activity, it must need to cut its OHS support services its website content, its publications, its OHS awareness campaigns.  But how can it do this when Lord Young (recently appointed as the UK Prime Minister’s Enterprise Adviser) has increased the HSE’s workload:
“My report highlights the role that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities have in promoting a common sense approach to health and safety.  Their role is pivotal in ensuring that businesses, schools and voluntary organisations can operate in a way where health and safety is applied in a proportionate manner.”
Perhaps, part of the answer comes from the next paragraph in Lord Young’s report where, essentially, he wants to dumb-down safety to checklists, at least in the short-term (likely to be the long-term if the EU will not compromise):
“I propose that the HSE develop downloadable checklists to reassure organisations operating in low hazard environments that they are meeting their legal obligations and managing risk so far as is reasonably practicable.”
[The checklists for stress, bullying and mental health promise to be fascinating.]
So much for “their role is pivotal”.
An incoming conservative government in Australia in 1996 decimated the budget of the National OHS Commission (pages 5&6 of link) effectively cancelling a program of national uniformity for OHS laws in eleven priority areas.  This impeded the growth of effective OHS laws for almost a decade until the same Prime Minister, John Howard, started the, similar, OHS harmonisation process but this time for the purposes of reducing business costs.
The UK faces a similar result unless the senior figures in the Health & Safety Executive are able to produce creative solutions which maintain (or increase) enforcement at some time as provided strong support for injury prevention.  If the HSE can survive the 35% cut in funding and still functional to its original charter, it may provide a model of efficiency to OHS regulators around the world facing similar challenges.
reservoir, victoria, australia

4 thoughts on “Do budget cuts equal cuts in safety enforcement?”

  1. “Almost half (49%) of safety representatives said that as far as they know, a health and safety inspector has never inspected their workplace…”

    How many worksites in Australia would have had a visit? I doubt it would get within a bull\’s roar of 51%.

    Seems to me someone\’s looking at a glass half-empty…

  2. Having written on this subject many times, my thoughts remain the same.

    On the spot fines administered by a substantial in the field inspectorate will always have the desired effect and if a minimum of 60% of fine revenue is then utilised to provide services to small business in particular, for the purpose of no cost advisory services in an effort to educate and comply via a mentoring program, then we may have something positive happening.

    The \”reasonably practical\” thing is being used as a patently obvious cop out for many employers anxious to reduce safety compliance cost.

    Any cost cutting in safety is bound to see a significant escalation in non compliance and serious injury. Is Lord Young prepared to stand up and be counted when a death of a worker is proven to be as a result of his recommended 35% cuts, I think not, like many of his ilk he will disappear back to his club for a stiff gin and tonic.

    1. Tony, the budget cuts were not proposed by Lord Young but by the UK Government. It would be nice if he takes some of his experiences in investigating OHS through to his new position as Chris Maxwell QC did in Victoria after the Maxwell Report but that is up to Lord Young.

      On the matter of on-the-spot fines, I sympathise but suspect that, in Australia where there is a high sensitivity on unions receiving some of the financial penalties from OHS prosecutions they begin, this is not going to be widely applied. Victoria, often quoted as a model for the national model OHS Laws, on-the-spot fines have never been applied. From memory, Australian research (I think by Richard Johnstone) has found that on-the-spot fines can impede OHS preventive measures by being interpreted as \”the cost for poor safety\” and a cost that is absorbed by business without any demonstrative benefit.

      On the matter of advisory services for small business, many states already have such services through OHS regulators but I am yet to be convinced that such services are empowering small business operators on safety management. There is no independent research into the performance of these schemes, to my knowledge, and in some instances I believe that the small businesses become dependent on the OHS consultant who provides the original three (or six) hour advisory service and then charges commercial rates.

      Regarding mentoring, I have always believed that OHS professionals should provide a set number of hours of advice pro-bono in order to maintain their professional qualification. I have also spoken in favour of OHS professionals in corporations mentoring smaller businesses, not connected with the corporation\’s business sector, and sharing some of the corporate resources in a formal \”corporate safety responsibility\” program.

      You raise many valid areas for discussion and always appreciate your input.

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