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For health and safety laws to be effective, employers must know that if they do not obey the law they could face prosecution.
In the past, the HSE and local authorities used a mix of proactive inspections (these are routine and often unannounced), and reactive inspections (after an incident is reported). The HSE used a ratio of 60 per cent proactive to 40 per cent reactive. Those workplaces that were most likely to have problems were visited more often and occasionally there would be a ‘blitz’ of a certain industry such as construction to try to improve standards. Overall, proactive inspections aimed to target where they would have most benefit, but no workplace was free from the possibility of an unannounced inspection. This was generally accepted as being the most effective way of ensuring that employers complied with the law and at the same time bringing those who broke the law to justice.
The concern from unions and many safety campaigners was simply that there were not enough inspections; but since the coalition government came to power the situation has become even worse.
In March 2011 the government issued instructions to the HSE to stop all proactive inspections in a wide range of industries including postal services, transport (including docks), education, electricity, light engineering, textiles, health and social care. They say that this will reduce the number of inspections by 11,000 a year. The reason that they give, in most cases, is that the premises are ‘low risk’. In fact many of the sectors identified have much higher levels of ill health caused by work than those that are still allowed to be inspected. In addition, an analysis in January 2013 by Hazards magazine of the HSE’s official fatality figures showed that 53 per cent of deaths occurred in those workplaces no longer subject to unannounced preventive inspections.
The government has also told local authorities to stop most of their proactive inspections. Local authorities undertook approx 8,000 proactive inspections in 2013/14, which is a massive 93 per cent reduction since 2009/10. In fact 36 per cent report that in the first six months of 2013 they carried out no proactive inspections in any risk category. And it is not only proactive inspections that have been cut: accident investigation visits are also down 42 per cent since 2009/10.
The number of proactive inspections will fall even further as a result of instruction to this effect in a National Local Authority Enforcement Code published in May 2013.
HSE inspections in high-risk workplaces have also fallen. The highest-risk firms, those covered by the HSE’s Hazardous Installations Directorate, fell from 3,622 inspection records in 2010/11 to 2,219 in 2011/12.
Figures also reveal fewer complaints being followed up by the HSE. The HSE received 11,975 complaints from workers and members of the public in 2010/11, which fell to 10,420 in 2011/12. The organisation ‘followed up’ 10,000 cases in 2012/13, showing a steady decline throughout the years. Investigations of reported injuries also fell from 4,267 in 2010/11 to 3,200 in 2012/13.
One new thing that the HSE did do was to set up an Independent Regulatory Challenge Panel to consider complaints against decisions made by HSE or local authority inspectors. To date, only one complaint has been received.
What this means is that those sectors with the highest levels of occupational illnesses such as back pain, RSI, asthma, dermatitis and stress are almost all ones that the regulators are no longer allowed to inspect proactively. Because most of these illnesses are never reported to the HSE there is no longer any incentive on employers to take action to reduce them.
Injuries will certainly go up in those sectors where proactive inspections are being banned. After all, if employers face an inspection only if they report an injury or fatality, it is not likely to act as a deterrent as most employers think ‘it will never happen to me’. It may, however, mean that when it does happen it is less likely to be reported.
The reason for the government’s demands that regulators cut inspections is nothing to do with the cuts, not is it based on any kind of evidence about effectiveness. Requests made under the Freedom of Information Act for the evidence that was considered before the decision was made have shown that there is none.
The decision to stop proactive inspections is because the government believes that inspections are a ‘burden’ on business. This is nonsense. Only employers who are breaking the law have anything to fear from an inspection. The vast majority of inspections do not lead to a prosecution, but to the employer being given advice and support on improving health and safety. In fact 89 per cent of employers who are visited by the HSE say it is a positive experience. Additionally, a CBI survey of business views of the HSE, conducted before the government stopped proactive inspections, found that “business regards fair enforcement as the principal focus of the HSE and is generally satisfied with the quality of service provided by the HSE”.
Inspections also help produce a ‘level playing field’. Employers who invest in health and safety often complain that their competitors get away with cutting corners. Having regular inspections ensures that this does not happen.