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June 23, 2008

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Health and safety regulation and enforcement

Throughout the first part of this decade it is safe to say that relations between the HSE and local authorities were strained, with the former accusing the latter of a lack of commitment to health and safety enforcement. Richard Wilson provides a brief overview of how the situation has since improved, based on his experiences with local-authority enforcement officers in Scotland.

More than 12 million people — nearly half of the employed workforce in Great Britain — now rely on local-authority enforcement officers to protect their health and safety at work.

The main work activities for which local authorities (LAs) are currently responsible, as set out in the Health and Safety (Enforcing Authority) Regulations 1998, include: retailing; most offices; wholesale and retail distribution; hotels and catering establishments; premises for leisure and entertainment; consumer and financial services; and places of religious worship.

With a changing economy resulting in greater emphasis on service industries, the 410 councils in Great Britain, with more than 3000 officers who can enforce health and safety legislation, have an increasing role to play in reducing injuries and ill health in the workplace.

Despite this, health and safety regulation was given low priority in LAs for many years, both in terms of resources allocated and time devoted to it, compared with other functions, such as food safety. (In some LAs, food enforcement teams have been enlarged to meet the audit requirements of the Food Standards Agency.) The relationship between LAs and the HSE has also been uneasy owing to differing priorities, with little joint working except at local level.

Creating the partnership

The need to improve the situation and develop more effective ways of working was recognised by the Health and Safety Commission in its Strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond,1 which set out the need for the HSE and LAs to work in closer partnership based on a mutual understanding of local and central interventions. This aim was reinforced by a LA/HSE joint statement of intent agreed in 2004 by HSC, HSE and LA representative bodies.2 Among the commitments it contained were the following:

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