“The verdict is not yet in as to whether reducing the regularity of health and safety inspections for low-risk businesses will result in a rise of workplace accidents.”
Health and safety inspections have long been heralded as an integral part of preventing workplace accidents, but new government rules have thrown this logic into question.
Parliament has announced that “burdensome” safety checks for low-risk businesses will be abolished in an attempt to reduce red tape.
The government claims this will be vital in boosting the economy, as it will free up valuable time and manpower previously spent completing administrative tasks.
However, health and safety experts are sceptical about the changes and fear that by reducing the number of inspections, more accidents will happen in the workplace, as standards slip.
From April 2013, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities will no longer be permitted to regularly inspect businesses and organisations that do not operate in high risk industries, such as construction, or do not have a poor safety record. This will include shops, offices, pubs and clubs.
Some 3,000 regulations will also be reviewed and overhauled by the government to reduce the number of specifications that currently bind company practice.
Furthermore, in a move that is hoped to encourage a culture of hiring, companies will now only be liable for civil damages in health and safety cases if evidence proves they have acted negligently. Currently, businesses are automatically liable, whether they are deemed to be negligent or not.
Fewer health and safety inspections, more accidents?
The government has called these reforms the most ambitious action ever by a modern British government to reduce regulation for businesses.
It maintains the changes will set companies “free”, saving millions of pounds in wasted resources.
Business secretary Vince Cable explained: “We are delivering a number of reforms across the economy to deliver on our top priority – strong and sustainable growth.
“Removing unnecessary red tape and putting common sense back into areas like health and safety will reduce fears and costs for businesses.
“We want to help give British business the confidence it needs to create more jobs and support the wider economy to grow.”
Implications for workplace health and safety
There has been much concern from health and safety bodies about the implications of the government’s changes.
The British Safety Council has claimed that by calling regulations burdensome, the government is treading in dangerous water, as it sends a message to companies that measures to protect workers are unnecessary.
In a statement, the body has stressed there is evidence to show that health and safety inspections have a financial and social benefit, in addition to helping to prevent workplace accidents.
Alex Botha, chief executive of the British Safety Council, claims that “no one should interfere” with the role the HSE and local authorities play in reducing work risks.
“The myth that there is an army of health and safety inspectors disrupting and stifling UK business day in day out is just that – a myth,” he said. “It is estimated that every workplace in Great Britain can, presently, expect a visit from an inspector on average once every 38 years.”
What’s more, by scrapping inspections for low-risk businesses, the steps taken over the last 18 months to reach a balance for the regulatory framework for health and safety could be threatened.
“Considerable progress has been made in taking forward those reforms with the aim of ensuring sensible, proportionate and comprehensible health and safety regulation,” explained Mr Botha. “It is important not to lose sight that these reviews did not find any evidence to suggest that there was a case for radically altering or stripping back our health and safety framework.”
GMB has also come out against the cuts to inspections, claiming they will not only increase the likelihood of accidents at work but will do nothing to encourage growth.
The union has deemed the new rules “propaganda to appease the right wing”, at a time when the government is under heavy criticism, specifically for its economic policies.
“This is nothing new and is in effect a regurgitation of previous statements from Lord Young and principally the previous Health and Safety minister,” said John McClean, GMB national health and safety officer.
To ensure there is no fall-out from health and safety cuts, the onus is on businesses not rest on their laurels and to ensure that they continue to do their utmost to prevent accidents in the workplace.
While many will not be faced with regular inspections, they can still be dealt a hefty fine and receive compensation claim should they be found to be negligent following a staff or customer injury.