‘Work safety returns to the Seventies as budgets cut’

Despite the findings, many workplaces still take pride in their safety record
Despite the findings, many workplaces still take pride in their safety record
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WORKPLACE safety regulation in the UK has regressed to pre-1970s standards due to severe budget cutbacks, according to a leading public health expert.

Professor Andrew Watterson from the University of Stirling issued the blunt assessment as his 82-page report criticising dwindling resources at the UK Government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was published.

The report links a dramatic fall in HSE funding, staff and 
inspections to an increase in workplace injuries.

The number of major and fatal injuries at work in the UK had increased by more than 2,700 in the past five years, the report said.

The proportion of cases investigated each year fell from 8 to 5 per cent across that same period, with the number of prosecutions carried out by HSE also halving.

The agency’s budget was slashed by 13 per cent from £228 million in 2009-10 to £199m in 2011-12.

HSE staff numbers dropped by 22 per cent in the two years to June.

Prof Watterson, who co-wrote the report with Professor Rory O’Neill, said: “I speak to people who are in the HSE about the 1970s, and they think we are rewinding even further back because of the lack of intervention.

“Historically, of course, there were no controls over what went on in the workplace, there were no controls about environmental pollution.

“We are almost going back to this voluntary approach, which from the 19th and early 20th century, we found out didn’t work. I think we are going back to caves if we’re not careful.”

The report’s authors said the HSE was becoming a “threadbare” agency that increasingly relied on companies to regulate themselves.

Their recommendations included reversing funding cuts and reappraising staffing levels to guarantee more frequent and probing safety inspections.

Prof Watterson said there was a need to also create a Scottish occupational health and safety agency controlled from north of the Border and free from Westminster’s influence.

Scotland has higher workplace sickness rates than the rest of the UK, but only 1 per cent of the 2,500 fatal and major injuries each year ended in an HSE-led prosecution and conviction.

“We think that if there was something controlled within Scotland, there would be far more accountability to both businesses and to employees and to the health authority,” Prof Watterson said.

An HSE spokesman said: “The responsibility for ensuring health and safety rests with those who create the risk, and inspections are not, and never could be, a substitute for companies ensuring they comply with the law, especially when the risks are very well known.

“In fact, HSE has broadly maintained the number of inspectors based in Scotland over the last five years.”