An inspector doesn't call

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Simon Hester looks at the government's attacks on health and safety laws

Forty years ago the Robens Report laid the foundations of modern health and safety legislation. 1972 was a highpoint of workers' struggle, and Robens, a former boss of the National Coal Board, sought to take health and safety out of the arena of industrial relations.

The subsequent Health and Safety at Work Act of 1974 put the onus on employers to minimise risk, gave workers basic rights to consultation and representation and established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

It was a legal high-water mark after decades of struggle that enshrined in law the right of workers to return home in one piece after a day's work. Employers largely supported this approach in order to minimise union disruption but also to ensure a level playing field for capital.

But the current coalition government's assault on health and safety at work is turning the clock back. Cameron has called for "waging war against the excessive health and safety culture", describing it as an "albatross around the neck of British businesses".

The government has already initiated three reviews of health and safety laws. A striking thing about these reviews is the support they give to the HSE and the current law. The review by Professor Lofstedt was the most explicit. He conceded the idea that the existing law is not a burden and said that most employers support it (let alone workers or unions!) and even admitted that the HSE does a good job. Lofstedt still recommended that 35 percent of existing regulations should be revoked, amended or simplified, but he didn't fully endorse the wholesale deregulation the Tories want to push.

This did not stop ministers putting their own spin on the report. Within 24 hours the minister responsible for the HSE, Chris Grayling, said that 50 percent of regulations would go and George Osborne went further in the budget, declaring that 85 percent would go.

Already the HSE has been cut by 35 percent, with hundreds more jobs still at risk. In February 2011 Grayling announced a massive reduction in the number of "proactive" inspections. As a result the number of inspections over the last year has fallen by a third. The HSE's Field Operations Directorate is responsible for regulating almost one million workplaces, with fewer than 600 inspectors. How this could ever be described as "burdensome" is absurd. In reality most workplaces never get inspected.

Grayling also ended unannounced inspections in the following industries, now designated as "lower risk": the whole of the public sector; public transport including buses and airports; the post office and parcels delivery; agriculture, docks and electricity generation; and most manufacturing industries including light engineering, plastics and rubber, printing and electrical engineering. These industries will only merit a visit from an inspector if there has been a serious accident or complaint.

On top of that the government banned all publicity campaigning including the Asbestos: Hidden Killer campaign aimed at those most at risk of asbestos contamination, despite the campaign winning awards for its effectiveness. Two thousand workers still die every year from mesothelioma, associated with exposure to asbestos.

Grayling has announced plans to charge for HSE interventions. This will fundamentally undermine the work of HSE inspectors and open the door to future outsourcing or even privatisation. Employers now have even more incentive not to report an accident. Already small-scale pilot studies with "health and safety experts" employed by the likes of Serco and Veolia will be visiting "low risk" workplaces this coming year as part of the HSE's Estates Excellence initiative.

Such visits will be voluntary with no enforcement element. Every day HSE inspectors deal with investigations into horrendous injuries as a result of which lives are ruined and families turned upside down, usually due to failings in health and safety management.

The real scandal is not the lack of a "pioneering risk-taking spirit" that Cameron laments. Rather it is that there are still three or four workers killed at work every week and over a million people suffer from work-related ill health, the regulatory authority which exists to ensure employers comply with their legal duties is being hollowed out.