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Most fatalities occur in uninspected sectors, researcher claims

The majority of workplace deaths occur in industry sectors officially categorised as exempt from unannounced health and safety inspections, according to research by a university academic.

Professor Rory O’Neill, a researcher at the University of Stirling, made several Freedom of Information requests and analysed more than 20 HSE reports to map fatality statistics against a list of sectors excluded from proactive inspections.

The findings show there are now at least 37 “˜sectors without inspectors’, including agriculture, quarries, plastics, electricity generation and supply, and other industries acknowledged by the HSE to be “˜higher risk’.

“Britain’s biggest employer ““ the health service (NHS) ““ is also out of bounds,” highlighted Professor O’Neill. “But the country’s 1.4 million health workers can be confronted by many of the safety risks encountered in heavy industry, as well as all manner of potentially terminal health risks ““ from blood-borne diseases to carcinogenic, cytotoxic and other drugs.”

He argued that the policy ““ which was first laid out nearly two years ago, in the Government’s strategy, Good health and safety, good for everyone ““ is driven not by evidence but by an ideology of deregulation. “Despite several months of questions to HSE, they failed to provide any health and safety case for exempting sometimes deadly industries from official policing,” Prof O’Neill claimed. “HSE was told by the Government to get off employers’ backs and the watchdog tamely obliged.”

The regulator has published sector-specific strategies on its website, which aim to provide the rationale for its planned approach to, and mix of, intervention ““ but it would seem these do not go into enough depth, or answer the specific questions to satisfy Prof O’Neill.

His research showed that between 1 April 2011 and 31 October 2012, there were 258 fatalities in HSE-enforced workplaces ““ with 137 (53 per cent) occurring in sectors exempt from proactive inspections. In sectors still subject to unannounced inspections, there were 104 deaths (40 per cent). The remaining deaths occurred in sectors where the enforcement approach is unclear, added Prof O’Neill.

In Scotland, the statistics are more acute. Over the same 19-month period, 20 worker fatalities out of a total of 33 (60 per cent) occurred in uninspected sectors.

The research also found that reactive inspections following reported injuries have also dropped by 40 per cent in five years. In 2006/07, there were 33,300 reported fatal or major injuries in HSE-enforced workplaces, with 2841 of these (8.5 per cent), investigated. By 2010/11, the number of reported fatal or major injuries had risen to 36,062, but just 1844 (5.1 per cent) were investigated.

Concluded Prof O’Neill: “There’s an unanswerable business, health and moral case for comprehensive inspection programmes. The current Government strategy is making life easier for irresponsible businesses but risks making it just a bit shorter for the rest of us.”

In response to the report, a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said: “It’s right to target health and safety inspections where they will have most impact and risks are high, but that doesn’t mean other sectors of the economy are ignored. Every business continues to have a legal responsibility to protect its workers and anyone affected by its activities. In the past, too many unnecessary inspections were carried out on businesses. Our approach gets the balance right.”

She stressed that proactive inspections, “as has always been the case”, are targeted at where they are likely to be the most effective and have the biggest impact. Reactive inspections will continue in line with the HSE’s investigation selection criteria, enforcement policy and the Code of Practice for Crown Prosecutors, added the spokesperson.

A spokesperson for the HSE stressed that the sector-specific strategies are not set in stone and the door has been left open for proactive inspections in certain circumstances. She said: “Not only is there the option for proactive inspection in any sector should there be evidence of poor performance,’ priorities for action have, historically, changed from year to year and these are factored into inspectors’ work programmes.

“This year we are carrying out targeted inspections of higher-risk activities in some docks and ports, such as the use of cranes in loading and unloading operations, and these will be factored into work priorities. HSE will also be undertaking proactive inspections in relation to the employment of vulnerable workers in the fresh-produce growing and processing sectors.”

Suggesting to the DWP that the Government’s plans to put its inspection policy on a statutory footing, via a legally-binding code, might appear contradictory to efforts to build flexibility into sector-specific strategies, its spokesperson said: “The Government is clear that lower-risk businesses that are managing their risks effectively should not be subject to unannounced, proactive inspections. But, if there is a reason to suspect poor performance and workers or the public being put at risk, inspection will be carried ou

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