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Health and safety is the key to reopening the economy

Mike Clancy · 26 February 2021

The success of our economic recovery is dependent on maintaining workplace safety for everyone but to achieve that we need a Health and Safety Executive that is properly resourced, says Mike Clancy, Prospect general secretary.

“It’s health and safety gone mad” has long been a winning soundbite for a certain kind of politician, often one item on a long list of spurious ‘red tape’ that is supposedly holding back business.

This kind of rhetoric was never grounded in hard facts, and in the wake of a deadly global pandemic such talk would surely be laughed out of town.

The reality is that health and safety is now the key to commerce, and smart regulation and enforcement is one of our best weapons in the battle to safely reopen businesses through the Spring and Summer.

Given this, it was more than a little surprising that the English government’s roadmap out of lockdown didn’t contain a single mention of the Health and Safety Executive, or the expert inspectors charged with ensuring that workplaces are made safe in time for workers to return.

Perhaps the natural reflex to bash health and safety is too ingrained to allow ministers to champion the role of the HSE in unlocking the economy. Whatever the reason, neglecting the role of the HSE leaves a huge hole in our lines of defence against the virus.

Prospect is the trade union representing health and safety inspectors, and we are hugely proud of the work they do protecting workers and the public and helping businesses to operate more safely.

Let’s be clear, these are not the clipboard-wielding bogeymen of popular imagination, seeking any excuse to close down businesses. Inspectors spend their time trying to keep businesses open by helping them to comply with the law.

This is why crude measures of closures or prosecutions will never capture the impact HSE is having. Most employers want to do the right thing and protect staff and customers, but that doesn’t always mean they understand how to do it, especially when new threats like Covid mean that extra protections are needed.

HSE’s job is to help good employers to do the right thing, and to catch those who are trying to evade the responsibilities.

If we are going to navigate the next few months successfully and get our economy back up to full speed then we need our HSE firing on all cylinders. That means that they need to use the full range of powers available to them to keep people safe, and that the updated science on issues such as ventilation needs to be given proper emphasis in enforcement.

Funding

I am pleased that HSE has been listening to unions about this and is considering reclassifying Covid risk as a result. But the main issue HSE is facing is not lack of powers, it is lack of resources.

When I speak to politicians about this they are shocked to hear that there are more MPs then there are health and safety inspectors. In fact, the HSE has had its budget cut by more than 50% in real terms since 2010, drastically hollowing out enforcement capacity.

The result is that when ministers need the HSE they find they are pulling a lever that isn’t attached to anything. This is what the Prime Minister found last year when he promised a mass programme of ‘spot checks’ on businesses before realising that there simply weren’t enough inspectors to carry it out.

Instead, the government provided some short-term funding for some phone-based inspections carried out by external contractors. These tick box inspections are hardly what businesses need to ensure they are complying with the guidelines, nor will they inspire much confidence among workers or the public.

Next week’s Budget provides an opportunity to start putting some of this right. For less than half the cost of the failed Eat Out to Help Out scheme, the government could reverse all of the cuts to HSE so that it was fully funded for the rest of the parliament.

Now more than ever, workers across the UK deserve to be kept safe when they go into work. It’s up to the government to fill this gap in our defences and fully fund the HSE.


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