From the archive: Just so you know, this article is more than 3 years old.
Better Regulation: Better for whom? (bit.ly/23r9q5t) argues that the 29,000 deaths in the UK caused by airborne pollution, the million cases of food poisoning with 20,000 admitted to hospital and the 50,000 who die each year from workplace injuries and ill health are almost certainly underestimates. And much of this shortening and impairment of life is associated with a rate of inspection and enforcement that has been driven lower deliberately, Tombs argues.
The report claims that this isn't simply a matter of infrequent inspections and lax enforcement. Independent, effective business regulation has been systematically undermined by budget cuts, outsourcing and privatisation, says Tombs, creating a new environment in which the "social protection state" is being dissolved. Without minimum enforcement, the report asks, what is to protect us from air pollution, food poisoning and unhealthy workplaces?
Without minimum enforcement, the report asks, what is to protect us from air pollution, food poisoning and unhealthy workplaces?
In 2012/13 the Health and Safety Executive undertook 53% fewer inspections than in 2003/4 and brought 40% fewer prosecutions leading to 32% fewer convictions. Local authority cuts have had an even greater impact, leading to 56% fewer workplace inspections by environmental health officers -- and a 90% cut in preventive inspections, 40% fewer prosecutions and 38% fewer convictions. The argument has been that we can work in partnership with employers which, when they see the light, take reasonable action. But we also know that there are those that need to feel the heat. Has this latter group really halved in size in ten years?
Even if you don't agree with all Tombs' arguments, they are essential reading if we are to create a new narrative about the role of law and enforcement in these crucial areas for public protection. If we don't speak up now in defence of high standards, we could find that, as with public housing, we have lost what we once took for granted with little idea of how to get it back.
Finally, it would be strange to end this month's column without reference to the EU referendum but it is difficult to do so when even the Queen got into hot water during the Scottish vote simply by expressing the wish that people "think very carefully about the future".
Of course we should think carefully about any major decision, and expressing the hope that everyone does so should not be taken as support for one side or the other.
The UK has a proud record of driving its own health and safety improvements -- driven by legislation, by ingenuity and enterprise, by social conscience, by collective will and effort.
The EU has also made a large contribution; before directives initiated the "six pack" of regulations, for example, occupational hygienists routinely conducted health risk assessments. But they were less common and systematic for safety risks.
Given there are arguments on both sides about what we would continue to experience if we stayed in and what we would risk if we left, I shall stick with my hope that people come to considered decisions, and do not make short-term or prejudiced judgments.
Examples of the ways workers and the public were once blithely exposed to the most noxious substances, whether through innocence or expedience, resonate particularly strongly with us.We shudder to think of the young women at the Radium Dial Company in Canada in the 1920s encouraged by supervisors to lick their brushes to a point to achieve a finer line applying radioactive paint to wristwatch faces. Hundreds died of radiation poisoning, many after suffering disfiguring necrosis of the jaw.
How much of our worker protection legislation will be reset depends on a combination of economic and political necessity.There is no doubting the union’s influence on our safety and health law. The think tank Open Europe calculated that two-thirds of OSH-related regulations introduced between 1997 and 2009 originated in the EU.But there are good reasons not to unpick our framework, however it was acquired and however “glorious” the opportunity for change.
There is no doubt that regulation has its place in stating society’s minimum expectations and in providing a clear framework against which all organisations can measure themselves. There must also be a punitive system to address dutyholders who fall short of these standards. However, with less prescriptive regulation and a drive – in the UK at least – to reduce the regulatory burden on business, we should all do more to define good OSH performance and promote it around the world.
As IOSH positions itself for its next strategic period, it is timely to consider some of the big trends that may well shape the future of the world of work and our profession. The world population is growing and ageing, but there are demographic imbalances. In the industrial countries, populations are either stagnating or declining, but in developing countries, they are booming. In industrial countries, immigration is likely to increase, not just to fill the skills shortages caused by population decline, but as a result of armed conflicts and environmental problems.
With a possible change in our relationship with Europe in the offing, would leaving the bloc make the UK safety and health landscape look any different and would we remain as influential among the remaining members?Our robust Health and Safety at Work Act has had a profound impact on EU law. The act’s “so far as reasonably practicable” qualifying phrase was included in the 1989 Framework Directive on Safety and Health at Work (not without dissent), which became a strong foundation of EU safety and health regulation.
Other months may be less busy, but the spurs that propel such topics into the public realm guarantee a continued supply.One of these is the interface between technological innovation and the vagaries of human nature; people acquire new devices and find improbable ways to use them. Hence the calls for tighter restrictions on domestic use of drones and, more curious still, laser pointers. (I can’t have been the only one whose belief in the goodness of humanity suffered a knock at the news there were 1,440 reports by pilots in 2014 of people shining lasers into plane cockpits.)