Covid put spotlight on underfunded Health and Safety Executive, Mike Clancy tells Commons Committee

17 March 2021

The experience of the pandemic has shone a spotlight on the underfunding of the Health and Safety Executive, MPs on the Work and Pensions Committee have been told.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of Prospect trade union which represents health and safety inspectors at the HSE made the comments at a committee session on Wednesday (17 March) morning.

Clancy highlighted that the HSE had suffered cuts of 54% in real terms since 2010, reducing the ability of the organisation to respond to the virus.

Last year the government provided an extra £14m to the HSE after the Prime Minister had promised a programme of ‘spot checks’ which HSE had no real capacity to deliver. This money was mainly spent on external contractors such as debt collection agencies who have been conducting the checks despite not being trained professionals in health and safety.

The vast majority (52,000) of proactive site visits conducted by the HSE in response to Covid have been conducted by these contractors compared to 12,000 carried out by trained inspectors.

Clancy told the committee that a “lesson had to be learned” about the impact of cutting capacity and the inability to turn the tap back on to respond to a crisis.

In addition to resources, Clancy and MPs on the committee argued that HSE had “got it wrong” in classifying Covid as a ‘significant’ rather than a ‘serious’ risk to health in the workplace. This has affected enforcement action, where employers are not complying with Covid safety guidelines.

Clancy argued that HSE does not put sufficient emphasis on the issue of ventilation, pointing to the fact it does not appear on scripts for external contractors questioning businesses and that there is no separate ‘issue code’ for HSE inspectors to register concerns about ventilation.

The result of all of this was that HSE inspectors were in a ‘sandwich’- wanting to do more to regulate workplace activity but prevented from doing so by the guidelines.

HSE Chief Executive Sarah Albon conceded that HSE had been unable to spend the additional resources on more trained staff- but defended the decision on the classification of Covid on the basis that businesses were largely complying with the regulations and that Covid did not present a serious risk to the average working age person.

Speaking after the session Mike Clancy said:

“Keeping people safe at work is absolutely paramount to successfully reopening the economy, but we have a workplace health and safety agency that is simply not resourced for the scale of this challenge.

“Smart health and safety regulations require trained expert inspectors with the right tools to do the job. It is an inescapable fact that we don’t have enough people with the right powers to properly enforce these regulations across the economy.

“Government has to change tack and provide a long-term funding settlement to HSE. This is the only way to restore inspector numbers and boost the confidence of businesses, workers and consumers that health and safety at work is something we take seriously as a country.”

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