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May 11, 2009

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Strong regulator still needed in changing world of work, says HSE union chair

The UK’s health and safety legislation today is still fit for purpose — it’s everything else around it that is falling apart, according to SHP Arena speaker, Neil Hope-Collins.

Managing public and political expectations of the health and safety system, and transparent dialogue between its three parties — employers, employees and the regulator — are what is needed if the challenges of today are to met, said Neil — a health and safety inspector and chair of the HSE branch of the Prospect union. He told delegates in the SHP Arena at Safety & Health Expo that perceptions and expectations of the system currently are somewhat conflicting, in that people don’t want a nanny state, but neither are they prepared to take responsibility for when things go wrong.

Said Neil: “Since the 1974 Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act there have been great changes. Now, individual freedoms are seen as all-important, but with those freedoms come responsibilities. However, they way it is these days is that individuals want to have the freedom to do what they want but if things go wrong, they expect companies and the regulator to take the responsibility.”

He discussed the criticism levelled at the HSE by some who feel it is not doing enough, in terms of inspection and enforcement, to improve health and safety standards: “When an accident happens, people want somebody to be held to account. If they think that job hasn’t been done they blame the regulator, rather than the duty-holder who hasn’t been managing the risks properly!”

Funding and resources for the HSE is a perennial problem and Neil did not shy away from mentioning it. Pointing out that the percentage of GDP spent on the HSE in 1993 was 0.033 per cent but in 2006 was only 0.017 per cent he said this was a “catastrophic fall” and, taken in tandem with the fall in the overall number of inspection staff, it means that the HSE has to be judicious about what it can and cannot do.

Despite the fact that the world of work has changed — from a heavy industry-based to economy to one built on smaller businesses and service provision — and that the number of work-related fatalities in now in the hundreds rather than thousands, Neil maintained that the HSE is still needed. He said: “What we enforce has changed but there is still a need for a strong regulator. Health enforcement, for example, is a lot more work and is a lot harder to secure.”

But returning to the subject of expectations, he said the whole health and safety system needs to be more efficient — both in order to get the job done and to manage the expectations of the public and government. “We need to provide a better service for the same money,” he explained, “but we also need to be clear that that does not come cheap.”

Neil acknowledged the pressure that that tripartite system is under, with employers, workers and the regulator all blaming each other rather than seeing themselves as part of the whole. He said: “I see this as the adverse reaction of the system to the demands placed on it. What we really need now is a transparent debate on who has what role, what are the demands placed on each party, and what are the resources available to enable us to do what is expected of us by the public and politicians.”

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