Severe spending cuts at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have led to a significant increase in the number of major workplace injuries, a report by Stirling University academics claims.
The report says that reductions in expenditure have led to staff cuts, fewer inspections and reduced enforcement activity. They mean that the HSE investigates just one in 20 major injuries, and only one in 170 now results in prosecution.
Over the last five years the number of major and fatal injuries at work in the UK has risen by 12% to more than 36,000 last year. In the same period the proportion investigated by HSE has fallen from 8% to 5%, the report says. In hard figures, five years ago the HSE investigated more than 2,800 of the 33,000 major and fatal accidents that occurred. Last year, only 1,800 of the 36,000 were looked into.
The HSE’s annual budget has been cut from £228 million in 2009-10 to £199 million in 2011-12 with further cuts planned over the next three years. Staff numbers had fallen by 22% in June this year.
The report says that the HSE is becoming a ‘threadbare’ agency and that ‘workplace safety inspections are now so infrequent it is unlikely most workers will ever encounter an inspector in a working lifetime’.
The authors warn that the HSE is increasingly expecting companies to regulate themselves by monitoring and reporting on their own performance. Their report says they could find no evidence to suggest that the strategy of reducing inspections is working and that active intervention is required to protect employees.
The findings send a message to employers that they can act with impunity, with the costs of their negligence impacting on the public purse.
The report claims the HSE has failed to learn from incidents such as the 2004 Stockline gas explosion in Glasgow which caused the deaths of nine employees. Under the proposed policy changes the Stockline factory would not have been subject to regular HSE inspection.
Meanwhile, the HSE maintains that inspections are not, and never could be, a substitute for companies complying with the law, especially when the risks are well known.
The HSE plays a key legal role in Scotland where there are alleged serious breaches of health and safety law. Where evidence is found, the HSE is responsible for reporting to the Procurator Fiscal service which then decides whether to mount a prosecution.