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October 20, 2009

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Tories could ban intrusive inspections

HSE inspectors could have far less power to carry out routine inspections under a Conservative government.

Shadow business secretary Ken Clarke has announced a raft of proposals to reduce the regulatory burden on business. As part of these, he promised that a Tory government would curb the powers of intrusive inspectors by allowing firms to arrange their own, externally-audited inspections. Providing these audits are passed, firms would then have the power to refuse official inspectors entry to their premises.

Construction unions have hit out at the proposals, with Unite warning that the move could result in a deterioration of health and safety standards and an increase in building site deaths. It is also concerned that externally audited inspections will not have proper enforcement powers.

The union’s national officer for construction, Bob Blackman, said: “Ensuring high standards of health and safety on construction sites comes with a cost. The Tories should be focusing on preventing accidents and deaths rather than looking at ways of saving money for the employers.

“The HSE is not perfect, but at least it is trusted by the workforce and carries enforcement powers. Enforcement and prohibition powers are vital if the industry is not to see fatalities and serious accidents increasing.”

His comments were mirrored by UCATT general secretary, Alan Ritchie, who described the proposals as “very disturbing”.

He went on: “It would prove disastrous in an industry like construction. The recent blacklisting and cover-pricing scandals, coupled with the constant high death and injury rates, demonstrate that many construction companies, both large and small, are all-too willing to ignore and break laws and regulations. Any weakening of inspection regimes would exacerbate these problems.”

A UCATT spokesperson added that with private companies carrying out external audits, it was “inevitable that construction firms would get a clean bill of health”, as they wouldn’t pay for a bad audit.

SHP readers have also questioned the wisdom of the Tories’ plans. Rob Slater said: “Surprise visits are the only way to go. To me, seeing how a site/premises is actually working is the only way to help them put right any problems.”

And a health and safety inspector remarked: “There is space for both types of inspection and, as an inspector, I frequently use both types of inspection: on the spot and arranged. Frankly, it doesn’t make much difference – if they don’t know what they’re doing, they don’t know what to cover up.

“However, both are different tools to achieve different things so both should be used. As for being able to refuse entry to inspectors, the idea is laughable. Most of the businesses I visit are pleased to see me because they get free advice.”

Stephen Ratcliffe, director of the UK Contractors Group, said the Conservatives’ proposal struck a chord with its members. He said that he did not believe that large construction companies should be left entirely alone by the HSE, or be above its authority, but “there is a feeling among members that large construction sites in city centres are easy targets for HSE inspectors and there is some sense in the idea that very responsible companies following a proactive policy to reduce incidents of injury and ill health should not be quite so highly targeted”.

The HSE said it would be inappropriate to comment on potential government policy. In a report published in July, examining the causes of fatal accidents in the construction industry, the HSE was urged to carry out a pilot study on the merits of taking more proactive prosecutions where an accident has not yet occurred but unsafe working practices have been identified.

 

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