Government cuts health and safety inspections

In September 2012, the UK’s coalition government announced that health and safety inspections were to be confined to high risk sites only. The cuts, which will mean 11,000 fewer inspections each year, form part of a drive by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition to reduce regulatory burdens on business. Employer organisations welcomed the changes, while trade unions raised concerns that the cuts would lead to higher numbers of deaths and serious injuries at work.

Background

The coalition Conservative-Liberal Democrat government announced in September 2012 that it was to cut health and safety inspections of low and medium risk sites. Environmental health officers will no longer carry out routine inspections of low-risk businesses and assist in resolving minor breaches. The proposals will reduce the number of annual health and safety inspections by 11,000.

Details of the proposals

The coalition has pledged to cut regulation in advance of the April 2013 budget. The health and safety inspection cuts bring an end to automatic inspection of both low and medium-risk industries.

Other planned changes include charging companies guilty of endangering public or employee health for the costs of the investigation, in addition to the penalty they will pay for any breach. Changes to the recording of industrial injuries were implemented in August 2012, making it unnecessary to report incidents resulting in absences of less than a week. This will reduce the number of reportable industrial injuries by an estimated 30,000 per year.

Both the reduction in inspections and the planned charges are designed to deliver the 35% cut in the budget of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) due to be implemented by 2014–2015.

Judith Hackitt, Chair of the HSE, said that the changes would allow better targeting of its activities. She said that, when introduced, the proposals would enable the organisation to ‘give the highest level of attention to those areas with the potential to cause most harm and where we can have the greatest impact’.

Background to changes

The changes announced in September 2012 follow four reviews of health and safety legislation carried out over the past seven years. The most recent review was carried out by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, Director of the King’s Centre for Risk Management at King’s College London. He was given the task of reviewing what critics of current health and safety regulations have called the ‘goldplating’ of EU laws – the practice of ‘over interpreting’ EU rules which some commentators argue unnecessarily adds to the burden of red tape on small businesses and charities.

His recommendations focused on inconsistency in enforcement activity and cutting unnecessary paperwork. On completing the review in November 2011 he said:

My overall conclusion is that there is no evidence for radically altering current health and safety legislation. Furthermore, there is evidence that work-related ill health and injury is itself a considerable burden on business – as well as a cost to society more generally – and that the regulatory regime offers vital protection to employees and the public.

Reaction from the social partners

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) welcomed the plans to exempt low risk businesses from health and safety inspections. They argued that this would remove unnecessary burdens particularly from small firms, and allow inspectors to focus on ‘the cases that really matter’.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) also welcomed the move. Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and External Affairs, said:

Ensuring that low-risk workplaces are exempted from inspections is a sensible change that will save employers time and money without reducing the safety of workers…. The BCC has long argued for a risk-based approach to health and safety with industry-specific rules and a light-touch regime for those operating a low-risk workplace.

Health and safety expert Bibby Consulting & Support, however, has criticised the cuts as a further reduction in support for small businesses. It argues that environmental health officer checks helped small businesses to identify and resolve minor breaches before they became serious. The removal of these inspections, it says, potentially exposes small businesses to heavier penalties in the event of an accident, and means less guidance will be offered by the HSE.

Trade unions have also been critical of the cuts, arguing that they will have little impact on economic growth but will affect the safety of workers. Trades Union Congress (TUC) General Secretary Brendan Barber said:

Health and safety regulation is not a burden on business; it is a basic protection for workers. Cutting back on regulation and inspections will lead to more injuries and deaths as result of poor safety at work… Some of the ‘low risk’ workplaces identified by the government, such as shops, actually experience high levels of workplace injuries. This will only get worse if employers find it easier to ignore safety risks.

Sophie Gamwell, IRRU, University of Warwick

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