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March 18, 2010

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Proposal for independent risk-assessment audits dropped

Workplace risk assessments will not be subjected to compulsory independent audits, the Government has determined, as part of its response to Lord Gill’s inquiry into the fatal explosion at ICL Plastics’ Glasgow factory in May 2004.

Presenting his findings in July last year, Lord Gill made a series of recommendations to improve the safety regime relating to liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). One proposal was a recommendation that ministers consider whether the existing regulations for risk assessments could be made more effective, possibly via the introduction of an independent audit.

The HSE consulted stakeholders on this proposal, both in relation to LPG specifically and on a more universal basis. Stakeholders were strongly opposed (78 per cent) to the idea of introducing such an audit for all risk assessments, with 62 per cent also against this measure solely for LPG.

As well as acknowledging that such a system would be bureaucratic and expensive for industry, the Government recognised that the availability of suitable and competent independent auditors presented a further potential obstacle.

It also pointed to work that the HSE is carrying out with IOSH and other safety professional bodies to create an accreditation system for health and safety professionals. Said the Government response: “The aim of this work is that users of external services could be confident that their advisors are competent and have a means of addressing any concerns.

“This work is in its first stages, but an early finding has been that organisations use professional health and safety advice to assist them at many stages of the risk-control process, of which risk assessment is just one part. Introducing a mandatory audit of risk assessment could risk too much of this limited resource being expended on just one aspect of risk control.”

The Government has also decided against Lord Gill’s proposal for a formal verification scheme, which would involve periodic assessment of every installation by an independent and approved competent person.

The key factor that contributed to the explosion at ICL Plastics was the corrosion of buried metallic service pipework. In response to this finding, Lord Gill had insisted that the most urgent priority was to conduct an immediate programme of pipework replacement in industrial and commercial premises.

The Government believes that “replacement with polyethylene pipework will substantially reduce the risk at these installations” and, to this end, a plan for pipework replacement was agreed in June 2009 with UKLPG, the trade body for the LPG industry. Concurrently, HSE and local-authority inspectors are carrying out an inspection campaign to ensure duty-holders comply with existing safety standards.

As part of a range of measures to create a new safety regime, Lord Gill also recommended that every LPG installation should have its own comprehensive installation record, prepared and maintained by the user. This was supported by 84 per cent of respondents to the consultation, and the Government has asked the HSE to consult further on the potential content of and guidance on the production of such records.

The HSE has also been asked to explore the development of a uniform demarcation rule in relation to LPG installations, so that suppliers and operators are clear where their specific responsibilities lie.

Announcing the measures being taken forward, Work and Pensions Secretary Yvette Cooper said: “We are taking steps to strengthen gas safety on site in future. All commercial buried metallic LPG pipework will be replaced. To ensure that the replacement polyethylene pipes themselves remain safe the HSE will undertake any additional research needed into the safety of these pipes and consult the LPG industry and pipe manufacturers on appropriate tests.

“We will also take steps to raise awareness among LPG users of their responsibilities within the existing legislative framework and ensure they comply with safety standards, underpinned by appropriate enforcement activity.”

Welcoming the Government’s response, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), Grahame Smith, said: “I am sure that the families will welcome the comments regarding improved and more effective enforcement addressing a shortcoming in this particular case, which the HSE has already acknowledged as falling short of its normal standards.”

He also agreed with the rejection of the proposal for a stricter risk-assessment regime, saying: “The duty to assess hazardous processes – as in all risks at work – has to be seen to be on the employer, and the introduction of an overly-bureaucratic independent verification scheme and risk-assessment audits would only lead to confusion and allow unscrupulous employers to distance themselves from their legal obligations.”

Steve Pointer, head of health and safety policy at EEF – the manufacturers’ organisation, also felt the Government had made the right decision on the audit proposal. He said: “To have done otherwise would have fundamentally changed the self-regulatory regime, undermining the primary responsibility of users to manage the risks created by their work.

“It would also have resulted in very high costs to all businesses – even those with very low levels of risk. The self-regulatory regime should be maintained with permissioning regimes being applied to high-hazard processes only where justified by clear evidence.”

Nine workers were killed in the ICL explosion and more than 30 others suffered major injuries.

The Government’s full response is at www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/icl-inquiry-response.pdf

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