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HSE accused of speaking with a forked tongue on occupational health

Occupational health specialists within the HSE are aghast at its plan to reduce ill-health prevention even further, saying it totally contradicts the regulator’s erstwhile message that health matters.

Speaking exclusively to SHP in advance of research on the dearth of occupational-health expertise at the HSE presented at the TUC Congress in Brighton yesterday (9 September), a senior OH specialist inspector slammed the proposal in the current consultation on amending RIDDOR 1995 to remove the reporting requirement for cases of occupational disease.

The regulator is proposing the change because of overall “extremely low” levels of reporting of occupational diseases, and because information is usually “incomplete” or “received too late to act as a reliable trigger for an investigation”.

The specialist inspector said: “We OH practitioners within the HSE have been saying for some time that the RIDDOR requirements need to be updated but not abolished! The HSE policy division is saying that this information is not reported properly, and that we just use it to gather statistics, but that is not true ““ this information is vital for us. You don’t abolish the speed limit just because the majority of people don’t adhere to it!”

The inspector added that delays have not been helped by the loss of resources like the HSE’s Infoline (which was shut down last year), and gave the example of a “simple, easy-to-answer” query that eventually came through to the right person seven weeks after it was first made and had “gone all around the houses”.

At the TUC Congress the Prospect union, which represents 1600 specialist staff in the HSE and Office for Nuclear Regulation, revealed that there are just three occupational physicians left in the HSE, and 18 OH inspectors ““ down from 60 of each in the early 1990s.

The union’s head of research, Sue Ferns, told delegates: “Cuts are occurring just as the Government proposes to emasculate employers’ obligation to report occupational-health absences from diseases such as mesothelioma, skin cancer, carpal tunnel syndrome, and repetitive strain injury under RIDDOR.

“That would remove the bulk of the intelligence guiding the work of hygiene and occupational-health inspectors, and deprive lay health and safety representatives of information essential for them to monitor workplace health.”

According to data obtained by Prospect:

  • The HSE’s Corporate Medical Unit is so depleted it can no longer provide basic cover on occupational-health advice and prevention, or provide a leadership role to the OH community;
  • The HSE now has only five specialist radiation inspectors, falling to four later this year. An estimated 120,000 employers work with ionising radiations in the UK, meaning there is just one radiation inspector for every 30,000 employers; and
  • The HSE has withdrawn from proactive radiation inspection to save costs, even though there are 280 deaths a year from occupational exposure to radon and widespread non-compliance with the Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999.

The specialist inspector told SHP that the already widely-publicised cuts to the HSE’s budget and the new regime of more targeted and fewer proactive inspections means a wealth of information is being lost, which will lead to “huge problems with health-risk management”, adding: “If we allow the abolition of the requirement to report occupational diseases, then the message is clear: health doesn’t matter.”

The consultation on proposed changes to RIDDOR ends on 28 October and can be viewed here: http://www.hse.gov.uk/consult/condocs/cd243.htm

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