Safety watchdog letting employers 'off the hook'

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The Independent Online

Labour Editor

The Health and Safety Commission yesterday came under fire for allowing unscrupulous employers to "wriggle off the hook" as it announced a rise in deaths among the self- employed and the public.

In its annual report the commission revealed that the number of work- place deaths among the employed declined to an all-time low last year, but senior officials acknowledged that they were seriously concerned about fatal accidents elsewhere.

In anticipation of the "rosy picture" to be portrayed by the commission, the normally moderate IPMS civil service union argued that the commission's optimism was a "facade".

Cuts in funding had meant a reduction in the number of inspectors and had "destroyed morale". The union claimed that managers at the Health and Safety Executive, the operational arm of the commission, had been told to prepare for further reductions in funding of up to 9 per cent.

Ministers were accused of reducing the number of site inspections in favour of telephone calls, mail shots and advertisements. The IPMS claimed that the substitution of "contacts" for inspections constituted an "official deceit".

Frank Davies, the chairman of the commission, denounced the assertions of the inspec- tors' and managers' union as "nonsense".

He welcomed the fact that fatal accidents among the employed were at an all-time low. Last year deaths among the employed were down by 13 at 283. The fatal accident rate for the total workforce had been maintained at the low level recorded last year - about 1.2 per 100,000 workers.

Mr Davies said that staff morale was "extremely high" and dismissed as speculation the suggestion of a 9 per cent cut in expenditure.

The annual report showed that 73 self-employed workers had died in accidents compared with an average of 62 over the past three years. The provisional number of fatal accidents to members of the public in workplaces, which included building sites and fairgrounds, was 118, the highest for the last four years.

Mr Davies said that increasing resources would be targeted at reducing occupational ill health and that the commission would continue its efforts to help small firms. He said the number of small businesses had doubled in the last 15 years and that together with the self-employed they now accounted for more than 40 per cent of private-sector employment.

In a statement, the IPMS said that the number of field inspectors should be doubled to 2,000, and estimated that many establishments were now only visited once every decade. Inspectors who had taken early retirement had since been recalled on consultancy contracts at substantial expense to the taxpayer.