Richard Jones CFIOSH, former head of policy at IOSH, reflects on deregulatory initiatives of this decade, and argues that socioeconomic challenges should instead lead to raised OSH standards – as good regulation can benefit all.
As the UK Parliament debates the much criticised Retained EU Law Bill, the Government’s admission that poor guidance allowed the Grenfell disaster (despite coroner’s recommendations to improve it), raises serious questions for policymakers. Furthermore, such failures support the compelling argument that OSH deregulatory mindsets are misguided and detract from essential strengthening work.
Tragically, the Grenfell disaster claimed 72 lives and, as we approach the sixth anniversary, we sadly learn that 12 of the firefighters involved have now developed fatal cancers. Meanwhile, many residents of high-rise buildings remain deeply concerned about the fire-safety of their homes.
In order to build trust and close regulatory gaps, governments need to demonstrate responsible leadership and improve health and safety protection for citizens. It’s the very least that should be delivered. In the UK, this must include retention of our OSH regulations and effective enforcement of the building safety reforms and new safety case regime for buildings, as well as other improvements (see below).
Recognising the UK’s world-leading OSH system, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill policymakers should ensure that EU-derived OSH protections are both kept and updated. This will help keep workers safe, healthy and productive; give businesses the consistency and level playing-field they require; and facilitate trade with Europe.
Crucially, with the many urgent pressures on UK government, it would be irresponsible to repeat past misconceptions and fail to learn from the Lord Young and Professor Löfstedt reviews. These found the UK had an effective framework for businesses and individuals and confirmed the system was broadly fit for purpose. As we know, unwisely seeking to deregulate OSH can increase business confusion and perception of burden (see Cumbria University 2012), leading to OSH risks, business interruption and reduced productivity.
Instead, the government should work to strengthen the OSH regulatory landscape and raise standards through:
1. Positive directors’ duties on OSH, so leaders take responsibility for their decisions (IOSH response to the Löfstedt Review, 2011)
2. A new system for coroners, so their advice on preventing future deaths is heeded (New Routes to Reforming the Coroner Service June 2022)
3. A single enforcement body for labour rights, extended licensing regime and the promised modern slavery and employment bills, so vulnerable workers aren’t exploited (Better regulatory fabric for factories August 2022)
4. Adequate resourcing of the Health and Safety Executive for its increased role (IOSH response to UK Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review 2020).
In these difficult times, to prevent erosion of essential OSH standards, it is vital that OSH professionals and others continue to make the case for good regulation – regulation that works to save lives and livelihoods and support business sustainability across all sectors.