Cost pressures keep safety on the sidelines: Occupational accidents have fallen, but not because of improved standards, says Martin Whitfield

OFFICIAL figures to be released tomorrow are expected to show a drop in the number of people killed and injured at work.

The decline is believed to be linked more to the fall in economic activity than a general improvement in standards of health and safety. The incidence of fatal and serious injuries has levelled off after falling steadily in the 1960s and 1970s.

Changes in the law, public disputes over implementation of European health and safety directives and a number of high-profile safety campaigns have increased attention on workplace injuries, which account for more than 30 times the number of working days lost through strikes. More than 550 people are killed, 30,000 seriously injured and 30 million days lost to work-related injuries and illness in an average year.

The Government's 'minimalist' approach to European legislation has been attacked by unions and the Labour Party but John Rimington, director-general of the Health and Safety Executive, maintains that Britain remains ahead of most of Europe in its accident record and in the way it deals with safety issues.

He admits that the HSE has not taken the opportunity provided by six new European directives to expand legislation and impose new regulations. 'People are wanting to clobber the Government for its alleged anti-European attitudes rather than clobber us. Our legislation is already far more powerful and comprehensive,' he said.

The HSE believes the changing structure of industry and the demand for increasing competitiveness have had a decisive impact. 'There has been a huge growth in sub-contracting so that in industries like construction and agriculture sub-contractors represent a substantial part of the total workforce. Very often it is the most dangerous work that has been contracted out. Industry has been under great cost pressure and safety has been partially sidelined,' he said.

Mr Rimington compares the high level of sub-contracting in construction, the industry with the worst record, to that of mining in the 1890s. 'The solution in the mining industry was the 1911 Act, which put responsibility on a manager down every pit.'

New rules to come into force next year in construction build on the same principle, with a designated person being responsible for safety on each site, who would have the job of co-ordinating the activities of sub-contractors. 'They will have to demonstrate how they had laid off their responsibilities,' Mr Rimington said.

The growth of small firms, often without fixed premises, has given the HSE severe problems in enforcement. A switch in emphasis has been made away from routine visits to large factories to more selective inspections of likely trouble spots.

A general rule of the safety industry is that the bigger the firm, the more formal the safety rules and the better the safety record. Injuries in large firms are also more likely to be reported. Evidence from the Labour Force Survey shows that just one in three injuries are actually notified to the HSE. In agriculture it is about one in five and for the self-employed one in 20.

With one inspector to every 690 registered premises - not counting those who do not bother to notify the HSE - critics maintain that the system is an ineffective policeman. 'Year after year we complain about the lack of inspectors. The new offshore inspectorate has about 240 inspectors, no doubt to expunge the guilt of the Piper Alpha disaster, yet we have just 100 in construction. If you apply the same ratio of inspectors to workers to the construction industry, then we should have nearly 6,000 patrolling Britain's building sites,' said George Brumwell, general secretary of Ucatt, the building workers' union.

The number of inspectors has increased since dipping in the mid-1980s, but large budgets are spent preventing the catastrophic event in nuclear or chemical plants where few are employed and where a fatal accident may not be seen from one year to the next.

Union safety representatives complain not just about the low levels of inspections but about the small number of prosecutions and convictions. Ucatt is not alone in calling for all deaths at work to be investigated by the police and for all cases involving fatal accidents to be heard in the Crown Court, where penalties are more severe. Several unions want prison sentences imposed on managers and directors to force home the safety message.

Changes in the law this year have increased the fines available to magistrates from a maximum of pounds 2,000 to pounds 20,000. Alexandra Stone Company was fined pounds 18,000 in August following the death of an employee cleaning roof guttering, while Crawley magistrates imposed a pounds 10,000 fine on SAS Catering after a worker was seriously injured when a walkway collapsed between a plane and service vehicles.

'Despite the increase in fines, pounds 20,000 is still a scandalously low penalty for someone who has been found guilty of what amounts to manslaughter at work. We want to see custodial sentences,' said Nigel Bryson, director of health and environment at the general union, GMB.

Mr Rimington agrees that the level of fines imposed by magistrates remains too low but rejects the call for police involvement and the demand for prosecutions for manslaughter. 'In the last two or three years we have presented 13 cases to the Crown Prosecution Service on manslaughter and in not one case has the CPS felt able to act. Manslaughter is very difficult to prove.'