A new report published September 24 by Stirling University Professors Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill places blame on HSE budget cutbacks for the major increase in workplace injuries in the UK. The report shows that over the past five years, major and fatal workplace injuries have increased by 2,700 per year.
In addition, over the same period, the proportion of injuries investigated by HSE has fallen from eight per cent to five per cent. This lack of investigation and prosecution of regulation violations sends a dangerous message to other employers that are looking to cut corners.
The HSE’s budget was cut by 13 per cent between 2009 and 2012, with further cuts still planned. Its staff numbers have been reduced by 22 per cent since 2010. These cuts prompted the report’s authors to identify HSE as a “threadbare” agency. Prospect, the trade union that represents HSE inspectors and specialist staff, has also warned that budget cuts have reduced proactive inspections of high-hazard sites by one-third, while most workplaces are completely exempt from unannounced, preventative inspections.
This study highlights the Government’s business-inspired agenda to reduce health and safety regulations, as discussed in last week’s post, “Cutting Health and Safety Red Tape?”. However, the only businesses that should fear from enforced health and safety regulation are those that are not making their employees’ wellbeing a priority.
As a result of the budget cuts that have been packaged as recession-busting necessities, the HSE increasingly needs to rely on companies to regulate themselves by monitoring and reporting on their own performance. However, the authors argue that this kind of soft self-regulation is the same approach the U.S. has tested over the past several years, an experiment that has proved to be both fatal and environmentally disastrous. For example, “statutory neglect” was implicated in the Deepwater Horizon oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
This does not, however, mean that inspectors should be a substitute for companies ensuring they comply with the law. The real problem is the false assumption, which the Government’s cuts to HSE funding rest upon, that relying solely on business self-regulation makes financial sense. In reality, this is a skewed cost-benefit calculation that fails to factor in the much greater financial benefits of properly enforcing health and safety regulations. A soft regulatory approach means that good employers pay for the negligence of bad employers and that those injuries cared for by the NHS put a strain on the public purse. It is the effective use of preventative measures that save the most amount of money in the long-term.
We have seen the damage that a lack of financial regulation has had on the economy. Do we really want to continue to experience the fatal and costly consequences of ill-equipping health and safety regulators to enforce the law?