Health and safety requirements to be relaxed to boost apprenticeships
From the start of next year, training providers and employers offering apprenticeships will no longer have to comply with any requirements that go ‘above and beyond’ health and safety legislation.
Announcing new measures last week as part of the Government’s Plan for Growth, Business secretary Vince Cable said red tape that can deter employers from taking on apprentices would be slashed.
At present, the Skills Funding Agency (SFA) expects training providers and the employers they work with to meet not only the health and safety standards required for all employees but also additional requirements for apprentices.
The changes announced by Mr Cable, which also include financial incentives for small firms to offer apprenticeships, will see health and safety requirements streamlined so that there are no additional demands on employers that already comply with legislation and national standards.
A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) told SHP that these additional requirements are burdensome for all employers, but particularly for smaller businesses. He continued: “For example, rolling health and safety assessment together automatically with self-assessment of learning imposes a potential burden on the employer to review risk assessments where this would not otherwise be required.”
The health and safety regime for apprentices administered by the SFA was introduced in response to nine work-related fatalities among apprentices in 2003. In a House of Commons debate in July, Labour MP John McDonnell said this spate of incidents had led to the appointment of a team of staff at the Learning and Skills Council, and later the SFA, who would go into firms where apprentices were placed and carry out a health and safety assessment.
Mr McDonnell told the House: “In that way, we reduced nine fatalities a year to none. . . Since securing health and safety protection for apprentices we have maintained an excellent record, but there is a tragedy waiting to happen. The very staff whom the previous Government appointed – a small unit of 25 in the Skills Funding Agency – are to be sacked in September.” (SHP has asked the Department for Business if the 25 posts at the SFA have been abolished and is awaiting a reply.)
Soon after the Commons debate, an Early Day Motion (EDM), tabled by Jim Cunningham MP, said the cuts would result in “the axing of all 25 posts responsible for assuring health and safety assessments of workplaces offering apprenticeships”. The motion also “rejects the Government’s claim that the HSE, which is facing a 35-per-cent cut to 2014-15, will be able to assume this responsibility without detriment to the assessment regime required to protect apprentices from dangerous workplaces”.
Commenting on the new measures, Dr Adam Marshall, director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “For some time we have been telling ministers that small firms must be incentivised to take on apprentices, so we welcome the Government’s moves to strip away some of the obstacles that have made it hard for smaller firms to get engaged.
“Health and safety constraints, inflexible teaching frameworks, and high up-front costs often deter companies from taking on apprentices. By reducing red tape, and incentivising firms to take the plunge, the Government is offering real help to firms and apprentices alike.”
Mr Cable insisted the changes to the regime would not reduce quality, saying: “Apprenticeships are proven to boost the life chances of young people, and are a sound investment in our future competitiveness. So, when times are tough, it’s right that we provide additional support to help the smallest firms meet training costs.
“We’ll cut no corners on quality. Apprenticeships will remain the gold standard for excellence in vocational training – but where red tape serves no purpose, we’ll strip it away.”
IOSH said it welcomed efforts to encourage more high-quality apprenticeships, but regretted that health and safety was again being portrayed as a hindrance. Head of policy and public affairs Richard Jones said: “It’s very disappointing that health and safety is yet again being misrepresented as a barrier, when, in reality, it’s an enabler, ensuring positive outcomes and successful careers. We are not aware of the additional requirements that are being referred to.
“Inexperienced workers are more at risk of workplace accidents and need to be properly trained and supervised. This is nothing to do with ‘red tape’ – it’s just common sense and sensible preservation of life and limb. Sadly, over the last decade, we’ve seen, on average, five under-19-year-olds killed at work; 1257 major injuries and 3917 over-three-day injuries annually. We need to do better than this.”
An HSE spokesperson said it was not in a position to comment on the EDM’s suggestion. However, the spokesperson highlighted that the HSE website holds a lot of safety information for employers about work experience and employing young people, adding: “Under health and safety law, you must assess the risks to young people under 18 years old, before they start work/work experience, and tell them what the risks are.
“You must let the parents/guardians of any students (and employees) below minimum school-leaving age know the key findings of the risk assessment and the control measures taken before the young people start work/work experience.”