At a recent event in Maidenhead, Prime Minister David Cameron explained to small businesses the changes that the government was going to make to health and safety in 2012.
Regrettably, this was presented extremely negatively, with health and safety labelled as a “monster” and an “albatross around the neck of British businesses”.
This of course, is at complete odds with the government’s own reviews - by Lord Young and Professor Ragnar Löfstedt - which found the UK health and safety system broadly fit for purpose.
Ignoring the hyperbole, the changes the Prime Minister highlighted included: RIDDOR reporting moving from over three-day to over seven-day; exempting a million self-employed workers from health and safety; establishing a panel for firms to challenge inspector decisions; and abolishing and consolidating up to half of existing regulations.
He also announced an accelerated implementation programme, so that all this is achieved in one year, instead of the recommended four years.
He flagged up other changes, including capping the fees for personal injury lawyers dealing with claims up to £25,000; removing ‘strict liability’; and inviting CEOs of major insurers to Number 10 to ensure that the levels of compliance they demand do not go beyond legal compliance.
Unfortunately, this account is rather misleading and unhelpful in a number of areas.
First, health and safety saves lives, supports business and sustains the economy.
The UK economy loses up to £22 billion a year due to health and safety failures and last year 171 people were killed at work, 50 of them in construction. Good firms not only protect their staff, they also safeguard jobs and improve their bottom lines in the process.
Second, there is no justification or benefit in exempting self-employed workers from health and safety; they only need to manage risks sensibly like everyone else.
Third, the consolidation of legislation to make regulations more accessible, which we welcome, needs to make clear that the essential duties will remain.
And lastly, the speed and scale of the proposed changes are a cause for concern. Professor Löfstedt envisaged implementation of his report by April 2015, which included consolidating up to 35 per cent of regulations.
But the Prime Minister announced he would bring forward the timetable for abolishing or consolidating existing regulations to the end of 2012. We worry that rushing this work could lead to mistakes and lost protections for workers and the public.
We are disappointed that the government isn’t focusing more on upskilling the workforce; providing help to small businesses (such as restoring the HSE phone Infoline; maintaining levels of inspector work; and providing tax breaks for employers supporting treatments and rehabilitation for their staff); and tackling aggressive marketing by claims management companies, ensuring adverts are socially responsible.
Richard Jones is head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health