Safety in the workplace - Who is really in charge?

In November 2007, the government published a consultation paper called “Improving outcomes from health and safety: the call for evidence”. In reality, it was a rallying cry to employers to complain about so-called workplace health and safety “red tape”.

Tony Lawton, a personal injury partner with Thompsons, suggests that the real problem with health and safety at work is not the legislation regulating it, but a failure to resource the organisation set up to enforce it – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

Health and Safety Executive

Set up just over 30 years ago following the introduction of the then revolutionary 1974 Health and Safety Act, it is now increasingly clear that the HSE is simply not up to the job. It has neither the staff nor the resources to do what it is supposed to do – investigate accidents at work and ensure that employers obey the law.

Latest figures suggest it only has the resources to investigate about 20 per cent of the most serious accidents at work. Given the emphasis of this latest government consultation, things are unlikely to change.

In 2004, the Health and Safety Commission (set up at the same time as the HSE but with a more strategic role) published “A Strategy for Workplace Health and Safety in Great Britain to 2010 and Beyond” requiring both the HSE and local authorities to “manage their priorities rigorously”. This involved providing channels of advice and support “that could be accessed without fear of enforcement action while allowing the regulators to continue to be tough on those who wilfully disregard the law.”

Yet, in the same report, the commission accepts that: “enforcement or the fear of enforcement is an important motivator for some employers. Our evidence confirms that enforcement is an effective means of securing compliance and promoting self-compliance.” It gave no clues, however, as to how the HSE might fulfil its role of enforcer without the necessary resources.

Safety reps

But if not the HSE, then who is looking out for the health and safety of workers? The answer – union safety reps. And it’s not just Thompsons and the unions who think so. In June 2005 the HSE produced research to back up this assertion.

It showed that the presence of safety reps improves not only employees’ general awareness of health and safety at work, but also their performance (employers please note). It showed that the reps encouraged worker participation in risk management and improved the working environment.

Indeed, our experience shows that, without the involvement of union appointed safety representatives, managers are very much left to their own devices in deciding health and safety priorities and spending. Time and again, thanks to safety representatives highlighting risks, employers have made changes, giving workers more protection and possibly saving lives.

Better training

Nor is this entirely surprising. Generally, union safety representatives have better training than many company safety officers, and are far better informed.

They are able to take advantage of union training courses on health and safety, and have plenty of available back-up information from the union and its legal advisors.

Safety reps are also empowered and protected by the Safety Representatives and Safety Committees Regulations 1977 and have the right to demand copies of relevant documents about health and safety issues in the workplace. These regulations give a good safety representative the ability to dig deep into the way employers operate their health and safety policies, deal with risk assessments and investigate injuries.

But we need more

But we need more safety representatives to carry out this important role in preventing accidents, ensuring that risk assessments are carried out properly, that employers know and understand their obligations under the law and, where appropriate, taking action against them to enforce the law.