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June 2, 2009

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One thing is certain in the recession- don’t cut health and safety corners

To back up its message to employers not to cut health and safety corners in the recession, and coincide with the launch of its new strategy for health and safety in Great Britain, the HSE has been working with outside experts to monitor the economic downturn and assess its impact on health and safety.

The Executive’s economists have analysed evidence from previous recessions, which shows that injury rates fall during periods of reduced economic activity, mainly because there are fewer newly-hired workers, less long-hours working, and, perhaps, fewer incentives for workers to report minor incidents and injuries.

However, there is also evidence that ‘corner-cutting’ in times of recession can lead to increasing rates of injury — possibly due to cut-backs on investment in training, and maintenance of equipment. On balance, though, the HSE found that in past recessions, the former effect has outweighed the latter — particularly in the construction and manufacturing sectors.

Much less evidence is available regarding work-related ill health, and there tends to be different patterns for different health conditions. Also, the incidence of non work-related conditions that can also be caused by work, such as stress, could rise because of the link between unemployment/deprivation and general ill health.

As for the current situation, while it is still too early to assess any real impact on health and safety, sectoral effects are already evident. Year-on-year falls in construction and manufacturing would be expected to result in a reduction in overall injury rates due to the effect of a shift in the composition of the economy away from sectors with relatively high injury rates. Different groups of workers are also being affected, with more men becoming unemployed than women, and more young people than other age groups.

When it comes to employers’ responses to the downturn, the picture is mixed. Different surveys carried out to date revealed that many workers were becoming more fearful of raising health and safety concerns now, while some company directors have said they would cut bonuses rather than health and safety spending.

Speaking at the launch of the new strategy, HSE chair Judith Hackitt said that while the temptation to cut corners is real, any cutbacks “will hit the bottom line sooner or later”. TUC general secretary Brendan Barber agreed, saying work to improve health and safety is more important now than ever. He added: “It will also be important as we come out of recession, when hopefully new businesses will grow and bring in new people. It’s up to all of us to make sure those people come into a safe job.”

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