Now that the dust has settled following the general election earlier in December, there have been many industry bodies and other organisations setting out proposals about what they’d like the new government to focus on.
One area that’s gained a fair amount of attention is health and safety, particularly with the new Employment Bill that was announced in the Queen’s Speech during December. While the bill has been broadly welcomed, many in the health and safety sector want to see more detail about what it will contain.
In the Queen’s Speech, the Employment Bill was announced as a way to improve workers’ rights, maintain the high standards that we already have in the UK, and improve fairness in the workplace. There will also be protection for those in low-paid work and who are part of the gig economy.
Chief Executive of the British Safety Council Mike Robinson said that, while the organisation welcomes the government’s promise to improve workers’ rights, there needs to be further detail before they can fully comment on the proposals.
“Balancing flexibility in the economy cannot be at the expense of protecting workers’ health, safety and wellbeing. The British Safety Council will be working with partners in our sector to ensure that there is not a driver for deregulation for deregulation’s sake,” he asserted.
He added that his organisation will be “making the case for effective health and safety management as central to thriving, profitable organisations”.
Other new bills announced in the Queen’s Speech included a Building Safety Bill and Environment Bill. The latter will set out legally binding targets to reduce the levels of fine particulate matter (PM2.5), which is the most damaging pollutant to human health.
In addition to the Building Safety Bill, there will also be a Fire Safety Bill that will incorporate recommendations from the Grenfell Tower enquiry.
The British Safety Council isn’t the only organisation that’s been watching the announcements from the new government closely.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) said that the scope of the Employment Bill isn’t wide enough, noting that it should be extended to include occupational health service reforms and the right to request health-related workplace modifications.
Richard Jones, Head of Policy and Regulatory Engagement at IOSH, said that the current Employment Bill “needs far more ambition than currently proposed”.
“IOSH’s focus at this time of great national change is two-fold: ensuring no erosion of health and safety standards and building a safer, healthier, more sustainable future for all. Not only must we maintain standards, but we must also energetically drive continual improvement in them,” he commented.
He added that good health and safety practices are “fundamental” to work that is good for individuals, businesses and the country’s economy.
Like the British Safety Council, IOSH also reiterated that it will be working closely with other organisations in its sector to encourage the government to put workers’ rights front and centre of their policies in this area.
Echoing the comments of Mr Robinson, the Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) Errol Taylor said that there needs to be more detail about the specifics of the Employment Bill.
“The health and safety of workers was not explicitly mentioned, and it was also notable that there was no reference to the government being required to communicate how any new laws might affect workers’ rights and whether the UK would mirror new EU laws - both of which had been mentioned previously,” Mr Taylor commented.
He continued: “This is disappointing because it appears to remove a key element of accountability in relation to how workers’ rights might change post-Brexit.”
Mr Taylor also reiterated the comments made by officials at IOSH and the British Safety Council, about how the organisations plan to work together to ensure that the case for workers’ rights and health and safety is made to the government.
You only have to look at the latest health and safety statistics from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to see how issues like workplace injury and ill health are having a negative impact not only on those affected but also the businesses they work for.
For instance, the HSE estimates that 4.7 million working days were lost during 2018/19 due to non-fatal workplace injuries. What’s more, 12.8 million working days were lost in the same year as a result of work-related stress, depression or anxiety.
A further 23.5 million working days were estimated to have been lost due to work-related ill health.
The HSE also estimates that workplace injuries and new cases of ill health (excluding long latency illnesses such as cancer) cost businesses £15 billion in 2017/18.
When you look at those figures, it’s clear to see why it’s so important to ensure that health and safety should always be high when developing policy relating to employment.
In terms of workplace injuries, agriculture, forestry and fishing, construction, public administration/defence, wholesale and retail trade, manufacturing, and accommodation/food service activities were named as the industries with statistically significantly higher injury rates than the average for all industries.
When it comes to work-related ill health, only three sectors had statistically significantly higher rates than the average for all industries. These were public administration/defence, education and human health/social work.
But despite there still being work to do in the UK to improve matters, the UK does well when compared to other European nations. Data from the EU labour force survey 2013 shows that the percentage of workers with self-reported work-related injuries that resulted in sick leave was lower for the UK than France, Spain and Italy.
In terms of self-reported work-related health problems that led to sick leave, the 2013 survey found that the UK outperformed Spain, Germany, France and Poland, and was well below the average for the EU-28.
Post-Brexit a strong health and safety record could help British businesses to stand out and to attract talent to come and work in the country.
It could also boost the competitiveness of UK-based companies, as fewer members of staff taking time off due to injury or ill-health will help businesses be more efficient and allow them to maximise their resources.
As all the health and safety organisations have asserted, it’s important that the UK does not become complacent. While the country is clearly doing well in terms of limiting accidents and illness in the workplace, there is still more that can be done.
The HSE figures show that 147 workers suffered fatal injuries at work during 2018/19, while 581,000 sustained a non-fatal injury while doing their jobs. What’s more, 1.4 million people reported suffering from work-related ill health in the same year. Reducing these figures should be a priority, even if they compare favourably to other places in Europe.
While limiting the likelihood of workplace accidents occurring should be a priority, businesses also need to prepare in case something does go wrong. Having the correct first aid provision, equipment and trained response can limit the extent of someone’s injuries or even save lives.
It’s therefore essential for businesses to assess their emergency preparedness & response, especially if they operate in a sector that presents higher risks than others.
The likes of construction, manufacturing, power generation and offshore wind energy are among the sectors that could benefit from a renewed focus on health and safety.
While organisations in all these sectors work hard to limit workplace injuries and illnesses, by their nature they tend to be riskier than others and therefore the need for robust health and safety policies and procedures is even more critical.