England’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, has described OHS as a “monster” in a speech to small business owners on 5 January 2012. It is important to note the PM’s comments prior to his monster reference that have not been repeated in the mainstream press. He refers to

“… a great big machine of health and safety that has built up over years.”

Cameron feels that he needs to address an OHS regulatory system and enforcement strategies that have become too complex for, particularly, small business to comply with. Part of his solution is to exempt the self-employed, in some specific sectors, from OHS laws. This is a questionable decision as it effectively establishes a two-tier safety management regime and sets a precedent for other similar sectors to lobby for an exemption from other, perceived, onerous laws.

It may be that OHS laws in the UK have become overly complicated over time but the role of the media must be considered in that it has focussed on many absurd managerial decisions that have resulted from a skewed understanding of OHS and risk. Frequently the media reports have no relation to OHS laws and all to do with an increasing litigious society and the pursuit of money through, potentially spurious, public liability insurance claims.

In the 5 January 2012 speech Cameron states that

“…the key about health and safety is not just the rules and the laws and the regulations – it is also the culture of fear many businesses have about health and safety.” (emphasis added)

Cameron explains his answer for reducing this fear of health and safety, the capping of fees that lawyers can earn from legal action against businesses on behalf of their clients, usually, employees. There is no fear of health and safety, it is a fear of litigation. Cameron is not on about OHS law reform, his concern is about “unnecessary” litigation costs. This is unlikely to be reduced by cutting the budget of the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) which must reduce services as the HSE resources have been contracting for some time.

Behind some of Cameron’s criticisms of OHS law is his fractious relationship with the European Union, recently seen through the economic summit with European counterparts but also by an anti-EU ideology embedded in the fibre of the Conservative Party. Cameron is mixing two separate regulatory and social processes because they happen to manifest in the same region. One process concerns money (economic reform) and the other concerns life (safety, health and wellbeing). Reforming both these elements requires separate strategies in European politics for one can be argued from humanitarian grounds but the other relies on capitalism, an economic theory that has always undervalued the welfare of the labour force and originally generated the need for OHS laws through its worker exploitation.

Exempting self-employed from OHS laws, cutting the economic effectiveness of OHS regulators and straining the political relationship with Europe will not dismantle the “great big machine of health and safety”, it will simply lead it to becoming dysfunctional and a dysfunctional OHS regulatory regime will result in greater workplace injuries and deaths. Official statistics may reflect no change in the future as the Government is reducing the regulator’s effectiveness to investigate incidents or to pursue incidents that have not been reported, or to enforce regulations requiring companies to report incidents.

Cameron should be looking to additional HSE funding but with the condition that the HSE needs to instigate a long-term promotional campaign that builds on society’s belief that no person should be harmed at work. The Government needs to develop the citizens’ existing values on work fairness, wellbeing and safety. This will require a more aggressive rebuttal of ridiculous compensation and risk decisions that are lumped under OHS. It will need considerably increased business support to clarify OHS obligations so that business does not waste money in areas that have little safety or health benefits.

It is accepted that the forecast economic status of the United Kingdom in 2012 will not allow an increase in funding to government agencies but Cameron’s strategy is attempting a short-term fix to a societal issue that requires societal change. The introduction of OHS laws in the 1970s was intended for the long-term by establishing fundamental social and legal principles from which OHS laws can evolve over time. It may be that, after some time, OHS laws began to grow in ways that were incompatible with modern society but that indicates a lack of management, planning and strategy on the government’s part over those decades.

The Lofstedt report is a good start in that the government has agreed to greater HSE involvement with local government (how this is to be paid for during reduced funding is unclear) and continuing communication with the European Union on OHS issues, although with an ideological program that may be incompatible with EU philosophies. But the agenda of the UK Government is to increasingly simplify OHS but by continuing with its OHS monster strategy it is also decreasing OHS effectiveness.

Kevin Jones