Health and safety deserve greater respect

With the funeral taking place last week of Keane 
Wallis-Bennett, the pupil who died after a wall collapsed on her at Liberton High School, it was deeply insensitive timing by the Westminster Department for Works and Pensions to issue a news release downplaying and indeed ignoring the very serious hazards that occur in the educational sector.

The press release instead focused on “silly” health and safety cases in several sectors, including schools, and attempted to highlight the value of “common sense” in dealing with the subject (your report, 19 April). To prevent collapsing walls in schools or other buildings requires more than common sense. It requires proper inspections and enforcement of regulations, and application of good practice.

Of course life is a risky business, but good government should be about removing or reducing serious and preventable workplace threats to life and limb.

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Also, within education, there are very serious workplace hazards that create other real and avoidable risks and sometimes very serious injuries and diseases – the occupational stress burden in the sector, the exposure of pupils and staff to asbestos in schools and a host of other health and safety threats that are not trivial.

Students, teachers, care-takers, cooks, cleaners and maintenance workers in the education sector all have a right to expect that their health and safety is taken seriously. 

Your leader rightly refers to reductions on injury in the workplace due to effective workplace regulations and enforcement. However, the scale of both workplace injuries, which you mention , and occupational diseases, which you do not, remains very high in Scotland at a time when the UK government continues to mount ideological attacks on health and safety red tape.

Around two million working days have been lost each year in Scotland due to workplace injury and ill health. This amounts to almost a quarter of all sickness absence and is usually preventable. In recent years, only about 1 per cent of roughly 2,500 fatal and major workplace injuries in Scotland each year have resulted in a prosecution and conviction initiated by the Health and Safety Executive.

These are strong arguments against the savage coalition budget cuts of the HSE and local authority staff who enforce health and safety law, yet the DWP minister is curiously silent on such matters. 

It will be interesting to see if the DWP now produces a press release for 28 April – International Workers Memorial Day – and, instead of trying to trivialise occupational health and safety yet again, announces proper measures to address our workplace disease and injury epidemics.  

Professor Andrew Watterson

Occupational and 
Environmental Health 
Research Group

University of Stirling