What has health and safety ever done for us?

Quite a lot, experts say. So why are these rules under threat, asks Jeremy Laurance
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Indy Politics

David Cameron's planned bonfire of health and safety legislation risks turning back the clock and exposing thousands of workers to unnecessary risks, experts warned yesterday.

Deaths and serious injuries at work have fallen dramatically in the last 30 years as a safety culture has replaced the belief that accidents were unavoidable, they said. The number of fatal injuries to employees has fallen more than 70 per cent from 651 in 1974, when the Health and Safety at Work Act became law, to 180 in 2008-9.

But progress could be stalled by the review announced by the Prime Minister at the weekend, to be chaired by Lord Young, the former cabinet minister. Mr Cameron said a "sensible new approach" was needed to "make clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm business with red tape".

Experts said that the legislation had protected workers. Most reports of "silly" health and safety rules, such as that schoolchildren must wear goggles when playing conkers, turned out to be myths. The real rules, requiring tractors to have cabs and roll bars for example, had saved many lives. Allegations that health and safety rules had proliferated were also mythical. Since 1974, the number of pieces of legislation has halved, according to the Institute of Occupational Safety and Health.

Alistair Gibb, professor of construction engineering management at Loughborough University, said: "In the past, building firms erecting a supermarket store would have people shinning up and down the steelwork. Now they are required to use mobile access platforms – cherry pickers. The building firms protested – it was going to mean extra investment and slow things down. But gradually cherry pickers became ubiquitous – and turned out to be quicker. It is a mistake to claim that health and safety always makes things worse and slower."

Andrew Watterson, professor of health effectiveness at the University of Stirling, said: "Over 100 people die from injuries at work and tens of thousands suffer injuries each year. That doesn't indicate that industry is over-regulated – it is under-regulated on serious incidents."

Hazardous substances had been banned or controlled, and rules to ensure guards were placed over moving parts in machinery introduced – both examples of the benefits of legislation. But Professor Watterson said there was further to go. "A beefed up health and safety executive with proper powers to deal with areas that are not yet dealt with is needed. In a review of global health and safety, Britain was ranked 20th out of 30 countries."

The British Safety Council said a young worker under 19 was injured every 40mins and 66 had died in the last 10 years. Launching a campaign yesterday, Speak Up, Stay Safe, to get young people to talk to their bosses when they think they are at risk, Nina Wrightson, the chairman, described the case of Lewis Murphy, who died in a fire at a garage, aged 17. He had been transferring a mixture of petrol and diesel to a waste tank when the fumes were sucked into the flue from a gas boiler nearby and exploded.

"If anyone thinks health and safety law should be downgraded then they should listen to the mothers and fathers I have spoken with who have lost their children in wholly avoidable accidents. This review could be the opportunity we need to work together with the Government to reduce regulatory burdens, raise standards and save lives," she said.

Safer at work

By Tom Mendelsohn

*1974 Health and Safety at Work Act becomes law. Before this, industrial health and safety in Britain was not centrally regulated. The Act set out a stringent, coherent set of controls. At least 651 people died at work in 1974, in comparison to 180 last year – a fall of 81 per cent.

*1983 Asbestos Licensing Regulations. We knew asbestos was nasty stuff, but this was the first piece of major regulatory legislation on the substance in the UK. HSE estimates that 2,000 people die each year from mesothelioma caused by past exposure.

*1988 Control of Substances Hazardous to Health. This was the first set of strict rules regarding hazardous chemicals in UK industry.

*1988 The Piper Alpha disaster involved the deaths of 165 oil workers during a series of explosions on a rickety old rig in the North Sea. The disaster highlighted the typically lax safety precautions prevalent in one of the most dangerous sectors, which soon fell under HSE's auspices.

*1989 Ninety-six people died and 170 were injured in the Hillsborough disaster because of insufficient safety regulation in sports stadiums. Much stricter rules were drawn up in the aftermath.

*2007 The Corporate Manslaughter Act. The most significant piece of legislation in a decade or more, the Act has made it much easier to prosecute faults in firms' safety systems that result in deaths. Multi-million-pound fines are expected, and there is a test case coming to trial in October.