Workers' rights on health and safety to be scaled down

Ministers want to cut red tape and end 'spurious' claims but unions are furious

Oliver Wright
Saturday 03 November 2012 01:00

Injured workers will be forced to prove that their employer was directly to blame for their accident before they are eligible for compensation under tough new legislation which critics allege will scale back workers' rights to those of "Victorian times".

Under proposals that Labour have claimed were "sneaked into Parliament", ministers are trying to amend health and safety laws to water down employers' liability for accidents and leave employees having to prove that their managers were negligent.

The Government claims the move will cut red tape, end the "unfairness" to companies in current health and safety legislation and stop them from having to pay out for "spurious" personal injury claims. But unions say the move will increase litigation costs, erode safety standards in the workplace and make it harder for workers to claim legitimate compensation.

Figures released this week by the Health and Safety Executive show that last year 173 people died as a result of workplace accidents and 22,433 were seriously injured.

The Government published a review this year of existing health and safety regulations conducted by Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, director of the King's Centre for Risk Management at King's College, London.

Last month, it announced an amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill. The new Business minister, Matthew Hancock, told MPs this was based on Professor Löfstedt's recommendations and would remove the concept of "strict liability" – whereby companies are liable for injuries regardless of negligence if certain health and safety rules are breached.

"The fear of being sued drives businesses to exceed what is required by the criminal law, diverting them from focusing on sensible preventive health and safety management and resulting in unnecessary costs and burdens," he said.

However, the Löfstedt review did not call for the blanket removal of strict liability. Instead it called for a review of where strict liability was necessary. "These proposals were sneaked into [the Bill] at the last possible moment after the legislation had been through committee," said Labour's business spokesman Iain Wright.

Karl Tonks, head of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, said the Government's proposals would "turn back the clock on workplace safety to the 19th century".

A spokesperson for the Department of Business denied that the changes would remove the right of individuals to bring a personal injury claim against their employer for negligence.

"Currently, most claims are brought for both breach of statutory duty and negligence. The change only affects those claims which rely on a technical breach where there is no evidence the employer was at fault," he said.

Case study: ‘I need the money. I could require more treatment’

Arek Kuchczynski, 32, won more than £100,000 after he was caught in an explosion in 2010 which also killed one man and injured four others on the fruit vegetable farm he works at near Taunton. The group of six were carrying out maintenance to a tank of compressed air when it exploded.

Since it would be difficult to prove beyond doubt that his actions did not contribute in any way to the accident, his case may not have been so straightforward under the new rules.

The Pole managed to make a tentative return to work and put most of the money aside as insurance.

It is not fair, it is not good. In my position, if something else happened, the pay-out I was given is what I would use to get by. If I hadn't won the money, I would worry about a time when I might not be able to work in the future, considering my injuries. When I first went back to work, I was only able to work for two or three hours per day. Since I am paid by the hour, some of that money went towards covering the losses. I would also use the money I saved if I needed to pay for more treatment in the future or if I lost my job.

Legislation: 180 years of 'elf and safety

After the 1833 Factories Act, the newly appointed factory inspectors exposed the bleakness of Victorian labour conditions. Children under 10 routinely crawled under moving machinery to free trapped threads or jammed parts. Often their fingers and limbs would be mangled. Many were crushed to death.

But the inspectors took their jobs seriously, and their remit was extended to cover all sorts of all workplaces. Early health and safety legislation was designed specifically to better the lot of children.

But 'Elf and Safety, as Richard Littlejohn at the Daily Mail has tirelessly campaigned to rechristen it, only entered the modern lexicon in 1974, with the 1974 Health and Safety at Work etc Act. From then on employers had to keep records of accidents in the workplace, and from 1981 provide first aid facilities. Laws regulating the treatment of those exposed to lead and asbestos followed. Then came similar laws relating to modified organisms, pesticides, radiation, excessive noise and carbon monoxide.

A 1992 act covered health and safety in the office. Guidelines were issued for computer screens, space, lighting and seating. Since then, attempts have been made to pare back the regulations. A 1994 review recommended 100 laws be removed, and in 2010 Lord Young published a review called "Common Sense – Common Safety".

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