Lords Debate Health and Safety at Work

".........I am somewhat alarmed by the proposals of Philip Hampton which encourage a less rigorous inspection regime, supposedly to reduce red tape burdening business. Red tape should only ever exist for a good purpose, but reducing inspection of so-called "less risky" premises to once in 20 years, as may be the case, or abandoning unannounced inspection visits, as Hampton suggests, aids the bad employer; it also inflames the vast majority of good employers, whose competitiveness is thereby undermined by bad apples cutting health and safety corners."

House of Lords - 11.31 am 26th January 2006

Lord HarrisonLord Harrison rose to call attention to health and safety at work, especially with regard to preventing deaths and accidents in the workplace; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, years ago, while working in an office at the Oxford University Press, my mother fell backwards over a bottom drawer of a filing cabinet that a colleague had carelessly left open. Her consequent injuries blighted her later years. Yesterday, a worker in an insurance office in Fife was awarded compensation after tripping and falling over a pile of-ironically-accident claim forms left lying on the floor of the office, again by a fellow worker.

Such accidents impoverish the lives of the injured victim, demoralise members of staff and cost firms money in compensation claims, to say nothing of the concerns of the victim's family. A most poignant tragedy recently reported involved a worker crushed to death by a falling steel grid in Newark. A fellow worker-his son-was first on the scene of his dying dad. That accident cost the firm a £20,000 fine. The subsequent inquiry found that it "would have been simple and cheap to prevent".

Too often, health and safety in the workplace is overlooked or, occasionally, subject to wilful neglect. It is a burden on business. The British Cleaning Council recently suggested that inadequate levels of floor cleaning, or the failure to adequately warn fellow workers of slippery floors costs British business £500 million a year in slips, trips and broken bones-a sum that floors me, and that is before we count the human cost.

Today's debate explores how we might reduce the steady figure of some 200-plus deaths and the 150,000 non-fatal injuries in Britain's workplaces. I look forward to the contributions from colleagues who are much more expert in these areas than I am, and to the reply from the Minister, who is a champion in tackling this stubborn problem. The Government and HSE have been laudably active in publishing the joint strategy on improving the health and welfare of the nation, which follows HSE's own 2004 Strategy for the Workplace Health and Safety in Great Britain to 2010 and Beyond .

House of LordsThe proposals build on the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which has seen in the intervening years a fall in fatal and non-fatal injuries from 651 to 159 and 335,000 to 111,000. While some 25 per cent of these falls are attributable to the substitution of service industries for the more dangerous heavy industries of the past, the Act has never the less clearly worked, and benefited from continuing political consensus.

We must do more, however. Perhaps we can begin by looking at where, geographically, the highest incidences of these tragedies take place-notably Scotland and Birmingham. I ask the Minister why that is. What can be learned from such geographical accident hotspots? Similarly, an analysis of accidents by industry lists the agricultural sector-and hunting-as top, despite the fact that there have been falling numbers of workers in that industry.

Agriculture is followed by construction, transportation, manufacturing and the extractive industries. What new strategies do HMG have to pursue these high-risk offenders? What further resources are needed to ensure, for instance, high levels of staff training in safety, close monitoring of the problem industries and the vigorous promotion of good benchmarking?

One such innovative example of good practice is the firm Wilson James, which provides security and logistical support services to the construction industry. Its introduction of an on-site medical centre with a full-time nurse, providing first aid and call out services, has saved-within just 10 months-£145,000. It has also had the ancillary effect of improving the workforce's morale and trust in the firm, and raising levels of general health among the workforce. How can we best redistribute the wealth of good ideas and best practice of which this is an example? Prioritising the assessment of risk in the workplace, as opposed to unthinkingly applying blanket legislation untailored to the particular deeds of a workplace, is to be welcomed. It is the theme of HMG and HSE's preferred approach.

However, I do not want this more targeted approach to affect the need for regular monitoring and inspection of premises. I am somewhat alarmed by the proposals of Philip Hampton which encourage a less rigorous inspection regime, supposedly to reduce red tape burdening business. Red tape should only ever exist for a good purpose, but reducing inspection of so-called "less risky" premises to once in 20 years, as may be the case, or abandoning unannounced inspection visits, as Hampton suggests, aids the bad employer; it also inflames the vast majority of good employers, whose competitiveness is thereby undermined by bad apples cutting health and safety corners.

Can the Minister say how such targeting of risk will take place? Does he recognise the tragedy of only identifying a risk-rich workplace after a tragedy has occurred? A good inspection regime can forestall these kinds of tragedies. In advancing a targeted risk assessment approach, a well-recognised inspection regime will act as a guarantor of high health and safety standards.

Is the Health and Safety Executive properly financed? A 1 per cent increase in its budget last year is surely insufficient for new duties. Take HSE's excellent new telephone helpline for small firms, perhaps a sector most in need of relevant health and safety advice. That helpline needs secure, extra funding to ensure that SMEs stay safe-not sorry.

Another piece of counsel found within HSE's excellent series of helpful pamphlets is the need for employers to pick the brains of their own workers on how practically to improve health and safety. That is all well and good-all members of the workforce can and should contribute-but I worry that too many safety representatives are seemingly sacked for asking awkward questions and for raising concerns that bad employers do not want to hear. Will Her Majesty's Government support the principle of roving reps, the right of unions to initiate safety prosecutions against dangerous employers and the right of safety reps to issue provisional improvement and prohibition notices when poor work conditions are exposed?

My noble friend also addressed the frequency of investigation of major injuries. Are all such injuries investigated and, if not, why not? In the HSC 10-year strategy report, it is implied that only one in five such injuries is thoroughly investigated. Surely, knowing why fatalities have happened is the key to their future prevention. The prosecution of offenders and exacting appropriate fines are also necessary complements to a stronger, business-friendly advisory approach to workplace safety. Is my noble friend happy with the current low levels of prosecution and perfunctory fines? As the Court of Appeal opined in 1998 in the landmark judgment in Regina v Howe and Son (Engineers) Limited , a fine needs to be large enough to bring the message home of securing a safe working environment not only to the management, but also to the company's shareholders.

I welcome the Corporate Manslaughter Bill which is now being studied in the Commons, but it will need to be strengthened in its scope, in the definition of who is a senior manager, in what constitutes an offence, in defining directors' duties, in identifying who has the right to institute proceedings and in respect of Crown immunity, the last of which I believe is relevant to your Lordships' own place of work, this Chamber. Walking backwards and tripping up on the steps of the Throne delivering the Speech to the Queen is clearly a workplace accident.

I have necessarily concentrated on workplace accidents and I do not have time to dwell on the unwelcome rise of attacks by members of the public on employees, other than to remark that combining the role of bus conductor and driver may save money but at the expense, I believe, of employee safety. That matter requires further thought.

I want to refer to occupational health. Some 2 million people in the United Kingdom have ill-health attributable to the nature of their current or past employment and some half a million presented as new cases in the past 12 months. I strongly support this week's Green Paper on welfare reform, which emphasises the need for employers to respond to their employees' occupational health concerns.

Good health of itself is desirable but copying good practice in this area also has economic benefits as exemplified by the Port of London Authority's enlightened sickness absence management policy, resulting in a 70 per cent reduction in absences among the workforce in 2003. Is my noble friend confident that the statistics currently available reflect the real levels of occupational work-related deaths? Hazards magazine's report A job to die for? claims that thousands of deaths related to occupational cancer, lung and heart disease go uncounted. The report states that they have reached epidemic proportions. That may exaggerate the case, but we need to have the facts.

That brings me to the need to predict and anticipate changing health concerns and to spot old concerns in new forms. I was recently informed of a district nurse refusing to visit clients in their homes if they smoked. I sympathise with the nurse, but it is a tricky problem for the management to resolve. What strategies do Her Majesty's Government have to adapt to changing need in a field where current workplace conditions can lead to premature death later in life?

Finally, I turn to the European Union and the fast-developing single marketplace which is increasing the need for common, high standards of protection in the workplace as workers take the opportunity to take their skills across borders. In congratulating Her Majesty's Government on being second only to Sweden in maintaining high standards in health and safety in the European Union, how will they bring in additional safeguards to ensure the safety of workers in the developing single market? I applaud initiatives during the British presidency to encourage the spread of best practice in this field. An example is a conference that took place in Liverpool that focused on the vexed question of hearing loss associate with noisy workplaces, a campaign that is now supported by the Who's guitarist, Pete Townshend, whose hearing has so sadly suffered from years of excessive decibels.

More generally, will the Government repel the sometimes shallow criticism of European Union and United Kingdom health and safety measures that seek to bring sense to the workplace to the benefit of workers and their firms? Does my noble friend agree that the trivialisation of these measures in the media, and by some politicians-such as supposedly obliging orchestras to play Beethoven's symphonies pianissimo - must be vigorously rebuffed? Health and safety is of interest to all and should be pushed and promoted, as it is by this Government, with sense and sensibility.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

Source: Hansard

 
 
 

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