Feeble safety watchdog under fire

Click to follow
The Independent Online

By Paul Lashmar

By Paul Lashmar

07 November 1999

The head of the Health and Safety Executive, Jenny Bacon, is facing mounting criticism for the safety watchdog's failure to stem the tide of industrial deaths and injuries caused by British companies.

Ms Bacon is to face MPs at a parliamentary select committee this month, where she will be asked why the HSE prosecutes so few companies that have been involved in life-threatening accidents and fatalities in the workplace.

Figures released last week showed that the HSE investigates only 10 per cent of major injuries in the workplace and that only one in five deaths leads to a prosecution. The HSE's reports suggest that company managements are to blame for 70 per cent of workplace deaths.

The executive was called in to investigate both the Southall and Paddington rail disasters. But it has been heavily criticised for failing to get tough with the rail industry.

The latest figures from the HSE's chief inspector of railways reveal that although the number of "significant" train accidents in the year rose to 104 - an increase of 15 - rail companies were only prosecuted over one accident.

The HSE was further embarrassed recently when it was found to have approved the signalling system that was criticised after the Paddington crash last month.

There were more complaints last week, this time over safety of workers in the oil industry. A trade union body, the Offshore Industry Liaison Committee, told the executive that North Sea workers' lives are now in jeopardy. It urged senior HSE management to "get off the fence and get this industry by the scruff of the neck".

The committee, based in Aberdeen, was incensed by the HSE's relaxed attitude to "serious and fundamental" safety problems on Shell's Cormorant Alpha platform.

Jake Malloy, the committee general secretary, said: "All the HSE seems to require of the dutyholder, Shell, in the short term is a tête-à -tête . That is not good enough. The men offshore want effective policing action."

The HSE, which was set up in 1974, is a relatively small organisation with inspectors based in seven regional offices. It is responsible for health and safety in workplaces throughout the country.

Ms Bacon, the director general, has been criticised for failing to confront the Government and demand sufficient resources to tackle the stream of human tragedy caused by some employers' lax safety standards.

Each year, 20,000 major injuries and 250 deaths are reported in England, Scotland and Wales. It is thought the majority of workplace injuries still go unreported.

Last Tuesday MPs on the Commons environmental select committee heard tough criticism of the HSE from safety campaigners.

David Bergman, of the Centre for Corporate Accountability, told MPs: "We have found that there is a terrible failure on the part of the HSE to properly investigate major injuries reported to it and that it also has a very lax prosecution policy." He pointed out that no director or manager was prosecuted for a workplace injury or death between 1996 and 1998 under the Health and Safety Act.

Mr Bergman also pointed to widespread differences in prosecution rates across the country. The HSE's Midlands office, for example, prosecutes only half the number of major injury cases taken to court by the Home Counties office.

Mr Bergman produced a Channel 4 Dispatches programme this year which revealed some startling case studies. British Steel, for example, saw 25 amputations - including the loss of a foot and a lower limb - in just two years from 1996 to 1998. The HSE investigated only one of these - the loss of a finger.

Dr Gary Slapper, from the Open University' law department, said there were many dedicated safety inspectors in the executive but added: "Organisationally, it is so badly resourced that their work is like trying to police a Scotland v England football match with five police officers."

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat spokesman for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, said: "It is clear that if companies are to take health and safety at work more seriously, the HSE must take rigorous and consistent action in cases that are brought before them."

Tony Lloyd MP, a former Labour health and safety spokesman, said that while the government had put more money into the HSE, there was still "a malaise in the way the HSE operates".

Ms Bacon declined a request for an interview. But the HSE did respond to the criticisms of the Centre for Corporate Accountability.

"They want a body with different remit from the one we have. They think we should be focusing on getting penalties imposed on employers who breach health and safety law. However, HSE's remit as approved by Parliament is primarily to play a preventive role in workplace accidents and ill-health."