Work is Killing Us

Around 20 per cent of the UK’s biggest killers, including heart disease, cancer and chronic respiratory disease, are caused by work, suggesting annual work-related disease deaths exceed 50,000 with working wounded totalling several million (Hazards No 92). The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is the body responsible for enforcing and advising on UK law – health and safety being a matter reserved to Parliament. It seriously under-estimates workplace injuries and diseases but notes 147 UK workers were killed at work in the year up to June 2011. In 2009/10 121,430 other injuries to employees were reported whilst 233,000 reportable injuries occurred, 28.5 million days were lost overall, 23.4 million due to work-related ill health and 5.1 million due to workplace injury (HSE Annual Statistics Report for 2009/10 and Labour Force Survey results). In 2011 a swathe of official inquiries looked at the subject. These have included Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee, the Scottish Parliament’s Scotland Bill Committee and a Department of Work and Pensions inquiry.

The figures are shocking and yet the UK Government is busy cutting funding for health and safety at work. Such cuts hit hardest the most deprived and vulnerable groups in our society and raise questions about equity and social justice as precarious work, insecure work and hazardous work grow around us. Sub-contracted and agency workers often simply vanish in official statistics. The UK faces attacks not only on workplace health and safety standards but also on the inter-connected areas of employment security, absence management, sickness payments and industrial injury and disease payments. They all play into declining public health.

Capital gives away precious little that it does not have to. UK occupational health and safety history is based on great struggles usually by trade unions, often because of pressure from their lay members, and aided by enlightened politicians to get through any ‘state’ protection. This was so on child labour in the 18th Century through factory, office and railway acts to the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act. The 1974 Act still relied on weak tripartism, however, and emerged from Lord Robens’ advocacy of self-regulation. Robens’ Vickers and NCB history seeped through his proposals. It took trade union pressure to obtain the 1977 regulations on safety representatives that gave the Act real bite. The 1970s were halcyon days for health and safety, with an active staff and an energetic group of occupational health specialists, when compared with the decades that followed.

At times of course, self-interest also played a part. When large capital recognised that poor working conditions could damage production and profit through killing and injuring or making ill its skilled workers – unskilled workers were expendable – then it was less hostile to health and safety laws. Similarly, when large capital recognised that it could hit smaller competitors by imposing health and safety regulations that these weaker competitors could not meet, then such regulation was not opposed. The EU in the 1980s also resolved conflicts between its aims of freeing markets and protecting citizens in positive ways by bringing in workplace health and safety directives that went way beyond what Thatcher’s governments would have countenanced. Yet the 1980s saw the emergence of the neo-liberal counter-offensive in Europe led by Dutch and British MEPs who argued for major cuts in health and safety regulation.

The offensive against health and safety at work has gathered momentum and explains both Blair and Brown’s espousal of deregulation and related strategies running the gamut of what has euphemistically been called better regulation, softer regulation and smarter regulation. Blair and co constantly cut the budgets of bodies like HSE. David Cameron’s administration has simply continued those policies now bringing in a huge 35 per cent cut in HSE’s budget between 2010 and 2014. It appears that reactive inspections will now dominate HSE strategy, with planned cuts of a third in future pro-active inspections. A whole range of industries and employment settings look likely to be re-categorised as low risk too.

HSE is a strangely masochistic body and fails to champion workplace health and safety. Successive government tell it that cuts will come: HSE acquiesces quietly and leaves itself open to more and more cuts. However, it is politicians, governments and some employer bodies, driven by ideology and lacking in sound evidence, that explain the real crisis in workplace health and safety not HSE pusillanimity. HSE for example did show in the 1980s and 1990s that ‘good health and safety’ was good business and that each year the UK lost the equivalent of a year’s economic growth through injuries and illnesses at work. The message has been received and understood by some large industries and companies that understand they get beneficial information and advice from HSE. Small and medium sized employers too, research shows, also like the information, advice and support they get from HSE inspectors. Some industry bodies have made the point that occupational health and safety controls should be protected and not removed in their evidence to a recent Department of Work and Pensions inquiry into health and safety laws.

Much is made of the UK’s health and safety record but the UK came 20th out of 30 OECD countries listed

Now there are increasingly strident attacks against health and safety by a string of government ministers who bizarrely have even suggested that the recent riots were linked to an over powerful ‘health and safety culture’ in the UK. Evidence shows the opposite is happening. Each year hundreds of thousands of workers are injured in UK factories and hundreds are killed whilst hundreds of thousands of employees are made ill by their work and tens of thousands die each year from occupationally-caused and occupationally-related illnesses. Such figures far outweigh the mortality statistics for road traffic crashes and murders combined yet the state, despite some cuts, still funds police bodies far more generously than the HSE. And we live in a country where cruelty to animals may often result in a prison sentence but employers responsible for multiple deaths of workers will walk free. Much is made of the UK’s health and safety record but the facts belie the rhetoric. In a recent respected publication, the Maplecroft index on health and safety and working conditions, the UK came 20th out of 30 OECD countries listed.

Despite recent research from the USA that shows regulations work and that voluntary and self-regulated health and safety schemes do not, the UK government carries on its ideological way. Chris Grayling, the UK employment minister, still refuses to meet the body that speaks for the many workers killed at work, Families Against Corporate Killing (FACK), yet in the last four months has met 10 industry bodies, several of whom advocate the cutting red tape agenda with precious little if any evidence to support their case. FACK in contrast is a national campaigning network to stop workers and others being killed in preventable incidents and supporting bereaved families through sources of legal and emotional help. For example, they represented relatives of Graham Meldrum who was killed at work on 12 July 2005. He was working as an agency driver for TNT delivering to Allied Bakeries in Glasgow and paltry fines of £33,500 resulted for those companies: a worker’s life still comes very cheap in Scotland.

‘Risk aversion’ in the UK has also been identified by politicians as a problem. Yet the UK health and safety figures do not show anything of the sort. They indicate we need more not less risk aversion to cut the toll. There is also much baying about the ‘compensation culture’; yet in workplaces the injuries and diseases are too real and far too few employees get any compensation at all – financial or emotional – for the damage done to them and their communities. As we write in October 2011, there has also been a dramatic increase in workplace fatalities between 2009/10 and 2010/11.

The position in Scotland, controlled by Westminster, is not only no better than England and Wales but in several respects it is worse. We have in the past seen major disasters, such as Piper Alpha in 1988 which killed 168 people and ICL/Stockline in 2004 which killed nine workers and injured dozens more. Serious failings in Scottish HSE governance emerged after the 2004 explosion linked to failures to protect non-union employees by ineffectual enforcement of regulations (www.theiclinquiry.org). Now we have an enormous epidemic of occupational disease due to asbestos and other substances in some of the most vulnerable, deprived and de-industrialised parts of the country. HSE figures not only under-estimate injuries and diseases, they also take no proper account of a hostile economic environment where employees are fearful for their jobs, bad employers have greater and greater freedom from government agencies to not report injuries and diseases, changes in reporting systems like RIDDOR will lead to a further reduction of reported injuries and diseases, and many employees have to adopt presenteeism (going to work when ill) because of fears for job security.

The HSE itself admits Scotland has a higher fatality and major injury rate than the rest of the UK but simply explains this away on the basis of more hazardous industries existing here. That appears to be astonishingly complacent and seems to indicate the rates are inevitable. In countries like Australia, highly hazardous industries such as mining have seen such rates decline when there has been an expansion of the industry. HSE Scotland all too often emerged as an apologist for failures to protect workers effectively. This is unlike the current situation in the USA where OSHA leaders reflect a commitment to raising health and safety standards. HSE recommended 43 cases for prosecution in Scotland in 2009-10, compared to 75 in 2007-08 and 84 in 2008-09.3 (NAO 2011:8). There are clearly serious questions to be raised about to what extent the UK health and safety regulatory system protects and addresses the needs of Scottish workers. For the reasons outlined above, it appears to have failed and perhaps should be more directly accountable to the Scottish government for its work.

Health and safety at work has historically only been protected by pressure on employers and government from employees, from trade unions and from civil society. Trade union activity through safety representatives provides the best protection but trade unions have been weakened and many employees are not in unions. What is therefore now needed in Scotland is a multi-layered approach. The Scottish government has a unique opportunity to demonstrate, as it has done on the NHS and social care, a different and more humane approach on workplace health and safety and support for those damaged by work than occurs in England. What Scotland needs is:

Action to prevent further HSE cuts

  • Greater accountability of HSE to Scottish civil society in terms of actions, resourcing and staff perhaps through a dedicated Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Agency
  • The effective linkage of occupational health to public health with greater activity on prevention and in primary care. Data on injuries and diseases should be collated from the acute and primary care sectors and GPs should work with trade unions and community groups to identify problems along the lines of SOHAS in Sheffield
  • The establishment of a Scottish worker health and safety centre to advise employees, unionised or not, about prevention and detection of disease and injury and support for victims. This could be created by re-aligning funds from health promotion initiatives that should be spent on preventing workplace hazards.
  • Linking good health and safety records with economic and other benefits from the Scottish ministries responsible for health, business and the environment and promotion of initiatives such as toxics use reduction so successfully pioneered in the USA

Further information on debates about occupational health and safety hazards and policies can be found in Hazards magazine (www.hazards.org), the Institute of Employment Rights (www.ier.org.uk) and FACK (www.fack.org.uk).

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