Why I’m striking: Sarah Taylor, HSE

Sarah Taylor, HSE · 15 March 2023

A lack of resources and low pay has driven scores of experienced inspectors to leave the Health and Safety Executive in recent years, and has now left the branch with no option but to vote overwhelmingly for strike action, writes Prospect member Sarah Taylor, Acting HM Principal Inspector of Health & Safety.

I’ve been HM Inspector of Health and Safety for 14 years, and for the last 18 months I’ve been Acting Principal Inspector managing the team of factory inspectors that cover the M62 corridor from Huddersfield to Hull and the East Riding of Yorkshire.

It’s easy to be cynical about health and safety. Plenty of people think it’s just common sense. To them, I’d say that I wish it was.

Sarah Taylor, HSE

Unfortunately, people are still too often hurt or made ill by work. They can end up with life-changing injuries, debilitating conditions, or even die as a result.

We’re not here to stop anybody from running a business or making a profit, and we certainly don’t want to see people unemployed. But we want them to be able to do their jobs safely and go home in one piece to their families.

Inspectors like me have a couple of roles. We’re out there to inspect, which is preventative intervention. We’re looking for breaches of health and safety regulations that might put people at risk, and to stop that before it happens.

The other side of the job is the investigation side, where something has gone wrong, and we want to find out what happened and to act if there are any ongoing risks. We will prosecute companies and individuals for serious breaches of health and safety law.

We take the knowledge and experience we gain from investigation and feed that back in to industry, to stop accidents happening in future. For example, I once investigated the death of a teenage apprentice who was entangled in a machine. I’ve found the same issue in other companies when I’ve inspected them and been able to take enforcement action to prevent a recurrence.

The HSE exodus

Recently, I went to inspect a factory in West Yorkshire and when we arrived on site, the health and safety manager said to me and my colleague, “Oh, I didn’t think you came out anymore unless somebody had died?”

That was a real eye-opening moment for me. That’s the state we’re in now, where the duty holders think that we’re not going to show up.

In terms of experienced inspectors, they’re leaving HSE in droves. The lack of staff is affecting every aspect of our work.

Morale among the inspectors who remain is rock bottom because we’re all so tired. All we can see is more of our experienced colleagues leaving and those of us that remain having to pick up more of the burden. We also have to train the new inspectors and, frankly, we’re always worried that they aren’t going to stick around either.

The impact for experienced inspectors who have stayed, is that you’re dealing with more and more of the heavy stuff, the fatalities and the serious life-changing injuries. That’s the day job now for a lot of our inspectors and it’s just draining.

We are still out inspecting and investigating as much as we possibly can, but the amount of work we’re delivering, particularly on starting new investigations, has fallen off a cliff because there’s nobody left to do it.

Not long ago, I had a personal injury solicitor ring me up about a case that I’m working on. He’s representing the bereaved family and he was pleading with me, “Please can you speed this up because the parents of the deceased are quite frail and elderly, and they just want to know what happened to their son?”

I told him, I would love to but unfortunately, I can’t prioritise one family over the all the others that I’m also dealing with. That was heart-breaking for me.

Starting the conversation

The lack of inspectors, the trouble with retaining staff and under-resourcing goes hand-in-hand with chronic low pay.

None of us set out to be HSE inspectors to get rich, but many of my colleagues are finding that they can get more money for less stress and without the exposure to trauma. Also, we can’t keep our specialist colleagues, such as our engineering and our occupational health inspectors that we need to deliver our frontline work. They’re leaving because the pay is much better elsewhere and it’s difficult to replace them.

We can’t carry on this way. We need something to change, and the ballot for strike action seemed to be the only way to get that process started. To start the conversation and make people remember that we’re still here.

Going on strike is not a decision that anybody has taken lightly. We don’t want to be on a picket line, we want to be out there doing our jobs. We are all conscious of that. But at the same time, this can’t carry on any longer. We can’t afford not to strike.

Prospect member on the picket line

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