Roger Bibbings MBE CFIOSH
Partnership Consultant, RoSPA

Good law sets expectations and standards. Health and safety law, built up over generations of struggle by trades unions, political reformers, scientists and others, is one of the cornerstones of a civilized society.

Long ago it was recognized that it is not acceptable for people to be literally worked to death, or for their bodies to be permanently damaged by failure to control harmful factors in the workplace. Today, that duty of care is well codified, and extends to protecting mental as well as physical health. And yet in practice there is still a ‘first’, a ‘second’ and a ‘third’ world of health and safety performance. There are businesses which do care, know their duties and strive to meet them (but not always successfully); there are those that care but lack knowledge, expertise and management systems; there are those that don’t know and don’t care; and worst of all there are those that do know but don’t care.

In the world of work full of so many different hazards, people cannot be protected from the ignorant and the unscrupulous simply by good intentions, or by the rosy optimism that most decision-makers will always do the right thing. All those in charge of work activities need to know that if they fail in their duty of care and people are harmed, they will be held to account. The price of getting things wrong and the chances of being caught needs to be high.

This means that our regulatory agencies need to have sufficient means to compel non-compliers to obey and to sanction those who will not.

The 1974 Health Safety at Work Act, widely accepted as a landmark piece of social legislation (and which greatly influenced EU health safety law), established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the key research, policy, advisory and enforcement agency to realise its objectives. Although much derided by its critics (many of whom see health and safety law as a burden on business) HSE is actually a unique, value-adding UK asset – a world class organisation which has been critical to the UK achieving an internationally outstanding level of health and safety performance.

But there is still much more to be done. Despite major progress, Britain still faces stiff health and safety challenges. Reportable work-related fatal and major injuries have reduced in recent years, but there are still high injury rates in some sectors (agriculture, waste and construction) and among SMEs; occupational diseases (asbestos, occupational cancer etc); work-related road safety (a growing threat in our increasingly service-based, road mobile economy); and the wider but under-addressed health and wellbeing agenda.

In terms of value for money, the funding of HSE is actually a spend-to-save proposition for UK plc. Its work not only saves lives, reduces injuries, safeguards health and assures public safety, but also helps to save businesses and the wider community up to £30 billion every year.

The essential point is that investing in a strong and effective HSE is of fundamental importance to UK growth and competitiveness. And yet, the agency’s budget has been severely cut back over the last decade. What’s more, to relieve pressure on the Exchequer, the Government have forced HSE to pursue a ‘fee-for-intervention’ cost-recovery approach which many say has altered their working relationship with business.

Questions of safety and health are located in unique zone where science and politics meet. Safety is a matter of informed social and not purely technical judgement. How hazardous things are, how tightly they need to be controlled, are questions on which stakeholders have different points of view. As a key regulator directly accountable to ministers and parliament, HSE represents the best option for an inclusive, honest and competent regulator. And it also is a key body to guide Local Authorities who have a key, but sadly under-resourced, role in enforcing health and safety law in commercial and lower risk premises.

Given the huge scale of the economy and the complexity of the hazard menu, ministers face a considerable challenge in meeting their ultimate responsibilities to parliament for the safety and health of people in the UK. To enable them to do this, it is vital that ministers have at their disposal the services of an independent, competent, well-resourced regulator whose expertise and freedom from political or other forms of interference is widely acknowledged.

Despite its current constraints and all the changes afoot, HSE remains a unique institution, the embodiment of our proven and highly successful approach to assuring absence of harm from work activity. Health and safety law is part of what makes Britain a civilized society. We should build up, not erode, the capacity of the HSE to protect it.

< BACK

Roger Bibbings MBE CFIOSH
Partnership Consultant, RoSPA

Good law sets expectations and standards. Health and safety law, built up over generations of struggle by trades unions, political reformers, scientists and others, is one of the cornerstones of a civilized society.

Long ago it was recognized that it is not acceptable for people to be literally worked to death, or for their bodies to be permanently damaged by failure to control harmful factors in the workplace. Today, that duty of care is well codified, and extends to protecting mental as well as physical health. And yet in practice there is still a ‘first’, a ‘second’ and a ‘third’ world of health and safety performance. There are businesses which do care, know their duties and strive to meet them (but not always successfully); there are those that care but lack knowledge, expertise and management systems; there are those that don’t know and don’t care; and worst of all there are those that do know but don’t care.

In the world of work full of so many different hazards, people cannot be protected from the ignorant and the unscrupulous simply by good intentions, or by the rosy optimism that most decision-makers will always do the right thing. All those in charge of work activities need to know that if they fail in their duty of care and people are harmed, they will be held to account. The price of getting things wrong and the chances of being caught needs to be high.

This means that our regulatory agencies need to have sufficient means to compel non-compliers to obey and to sanction those who will not.

The 1974 Health Safety at Work Act, widely accepted as a landmark piece of social legislation (and which greatly influenced EU health safety law), established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the key research, policy, advisory and enforcement agency to realise its objectives. Although much derided by its critics (many of whom see health and safety law as a burden on business) HSE is actually a unique, value-adding UK asset – a world class organisation which has been critical to the UK achieving an internationally outstanding level of health and safety performance.

But there is still much more to be done. Despite major progress, Britain still faces stiff health and safety challenges. Reportable work-related fatal and major injuries have reduced in recent years, but there are still high injury rates in some sectors (agriculture, waste and construction) and among SMEs; occupational diseases (asbestos, occupational cancer etc); work-related road safety (a growing threat in our increasingly service-based, road mobile economy); and the wider but under-addressed health and wellbeing agenda.

In terms of value for money, the funding of HSE is actually a spend-to-save proposition for UK plc. Its work not only saves lives, reduces injuries, safeguards health and assures public safety, but also helps to save businesses and the wider community up to £30 billion every year.

The essential point is that investing in a strong and effective HSE is of fundamental importance to UK growth and competitiveness. And yet, the agency’s budget has been severely cut back over the last decade. What’s more, to relieve pressure on the Exchequer, the Government have forced HSE to pursue a ‘fee-for-intervention’ cost-recovery approach which many say has altered their working relationship with business.

Questions of safety and health are located in unique zone where science and politics meet. Safety is a matter of informed social and not purely technical judgement. How hazardous things are, how tightly they need to be controlled, are questions on which stakeholders have different points of view. As a key regulator directly accountable to ministers and parliament, HSE represents the best option for an inclusive, honest and competent regulator. And it also is a key body to guide Local Authorities who have a key, but sadly under-resourced, role in enforcing health and safety law in commercial and lower risk premises.

Given the huge scale of the economy and the complexity of the hazard menu, ministers face a considerable challenge in meeting their ultimate responsibilities to parliament for the safety and health of people in the UK. To enable them to do this, it is vital that ministers have at their disposal the services of an independent, competent, well-resourced regulator whose expertise and freedom from political or other forms of interference is widely acknowledged.

Despite its current constraints and all the changes afoot, HSE remains a unique institution, the embodiment of our proven and highly successful approach to assuring absence of harm from work activity. Health and safety law is part of what makes Britain a civilized society. We should build up, not erode, the capacity of the HSE to protect it.

< BACK