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TUC and ex-HSE chief criticise board make-up and secrecy

The Trades Union Congress (TUC) has attacked the government’s appointment of a former business leader to a post on the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) governing board traditionally reserved for employee representatives.

Former HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger has added to the criticism by accusing the board of “hiding” in closed-session meetings. 

The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has appointed Susan Johnson, former chief executive of the Durham and Northern Business Forum, and previously a director of food retailer Greggs, to the HSE board in one of three positions that have been filled before by TUC nominees. The tripartite structure of the HSE board (formerly the Health and Safety Commission), representing employee, employer and government interests, was prescribed in the Health and Safety at Work Act. Section 2(3) (b) in Sch 2 of the Act says the secretary of state “shall appoint three members after consulting such organisations representing employees as he considers appropriate”. 

A similar clause provides for three employer representatives among the maximum 11 board members. 

“The government cannot appoint an employer to represent workers,” said TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady. “It’s a blatant abuse of rules that are there to ensure a fair balance between workers and bosses.” 

Johnson is a non-executive director of the Sports Ground Safety Authority. She replaces Sir Paul Kenny, former general secretary of the GMB union, who left the board at the end of last month. The two remaining employee representative members of the board are Kevin Rowan, head of organisation and services at the TUC, and Jonathan Baume, former general secretary of the FDA civil service union. The TUC also criticised Baume’s appointment in 2013 because it was made despite the congress’s proposal of another candidate, Fire Brigades Union general secretary Matt Wrack. 

In the first triennial review for the government of the HSE’s work and functions in 2014, Martin Temple, since appointed as HSE chair, said the board needed a broader range of skills. Temple recommended a relaxation in the fixed numbers of employer and employee representatives if the DWP found it was “not possible to achieve the appropriate balance of skills/ competences and required experience/background of HSE board members”. 

The government said it saw no need to change the prescribed numbers of representatives, but the TUC argued that, by appointing Johnson to one of the employee representative positions, it had in effect done so. 

Geoffrey Podger, who served as HSE chief executive from 2007 to 2013, told delegates at IOSH’s National Safety and Health Conference last month that the public perception of safety and health over-regulation had made those who should champion proportionate risk management reluctant to speak out. 

“My glance falls upon the HSE board whose role you might have thought it was to do this,” he said. “It is quite extraordinary to me the position they seem to have got themselves in.” 

Podger, now senior visiting research fellow at the Centre for Risk Management, at King’s College London, said the board’s tripartite structure was replicated in many countries. “Those that have good health and safety records all have bodies which bring together both sides of industry with politicians in some way and lead to open discussions on the best way forward on issues and don’t try to hide problems.” 

He observed that the HSE board which should perform this function “increasingly doesn’t and actually hides”. He pointed to the board’s shrinking number of public meetings, from nine in 2012 to three in 2016, of which one was cancelled. 

Podger criticised the recruitment of board members lacking “relevant influence or any sectoral knowledge” in last year’s Allan St John Holt memorial lecture. 

He told IOSH Magazine: “Instead of having arm’s length recommendations on health and safety from people who know what they are doing, what we end up with is politicised health and safety which reflects the mantras of the day but no political expertise.”

 

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Louis Wustemann is former editor, IOSH Magazine. He was previously editor of Health and Safety at Work magazine and Environment in Business. He has written, edited and consulted on health and safety, environmental and employment matters for more than 25 years.

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