Hazards 95 come clean image

Hazards magazin
e, number 95, July/September 2006
Last updated 17 August 2006

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Come clean

Does this look like a success story to you?
- HSE inspections down
- Inspection rate down
- Prosecutions down
- Notices issued down
- Regulatory contacts down
- Contact time down
- Fatal and major injury
rate up
Lying watchdogs
Unsafe argument
- ill-considered
Should do better
HSE in danger

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HSE enforcement crisis: Hundreds of jobs to go

Come clean

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chief executive Geoffrey Podger and his Health and Safety Commission (HSC) sidekick Bill Callaghan say the enforcement-lite safety watchdog is performing well. But Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says all the key indicators reveal the UK system is facing a serious and deepening crisis, and concludes it is time for HSE to drop the soft soap and turn off the spin.

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When Hazards revealed in May 2006 that Health and Safety Executive (HSE) safety inspections, prosecutions, convictions, notices and total regulatory contacts had all plummeted (Hazards 94), unions were quick to respond.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: “We know that inspections and prosecutions are the most effective way to stop employers from breaking the law. Whilst good employers have nothing to fear from inspections, rogue bosses have never before enjoyed such freedom to neglect safety rules.”(1) He added: “There is a real danger the UK’s safety record will get worse unless the HSE devotes more resources to carrying out a greater number of more effective inspections. With visits and prosecutions at a new low, there is no incentive for employers to tighten up on safety and as a result more workers are likely to die, be made ill or injured at work.”

Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC) health and safety officer Ian Tasker said the 25 per cent reduction in inspections over three years “is quite clearly an indication that the Health and Safety Executive is applying inspection resources in other areas rather than frontline enforcement.” He added: “Any other interventions in workplaces by the HSE other than enforcement should not be at the expense of inspections, the key tool in protecting workers’ safety, but through provision of additional resources”. He said it was “even more concerning” that the massive reduction only came to light as a result of a series of Freedom of Information requests from Hazards, with HSE initially denying it had the relevant data.

Neil Budworth, president of the safety professionals’ organisation IOSH, also backed Hazards. “Some companies really need to be coerced in order to take health and safety seriously. IOSH would like to see something like a doubling of the number of inspectors out there on the streets.”

Lying watchdogs

HSE, though, took a different tack. Questioned on 24 May 2006 by a House of Commons Work and Pensions Select Committee about the Hazards figures (2) showing a drop in inspections by its key Field Operations Division (FOD), HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger said “our data show that the actual contact we have with employers is in fact consistent. It is not the case that we have reduced it, although… it is true that we now actually spend more time with fewer people, which we believe to be justified on the basis of the nature of the risk.”(3)

Hazards used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain data referred to by Geoffrey Podger. The results were far from reassuring. The HSE figures showed an opposite trend to that related by Podger. Since the HSE’s new 2010 strategy (4) – the template for the drift from enforcement towards advice - was introduced in 2003/04 (Hazards 86), in almost all cases in almost all parts of HSE contact time has slipped year on year. Over the last three years, HSE staff days spent on contact time have fallen year-on-year in both FOD (from 29,589 staff days in 2003/04 to a provisional total of 28,432 days in 2005/06) and the Nuclear Safety Directorate (from 3,957 in 2003/04 to 3.725 in 2005/06).

Just one HSE division – the Hazardous Installation Division - had broken the trend, and this was only in 2005/06 as a result of a frenzied HID inspection and investigation surge after the December 2005 Buncefield explosion. The Buncefield investigation and inspections at similar sites countrywide diverted resources from HSE offices elsewhere. HSE insiders expect a corresponding crash in HID activity over the next year, as inspectors take related time-off-in-lieu and overtime payments eat into future budgets.


HSE inspectors’ union Prospect is also concerned that the contact time figures disguise another trend away from inspections and investigations, towards telephone based contact from health and safety “awareness officers” with limited training and no regulatory power.

Inspections, meanwhile, are in freefall. Figures obtained by Hazards show the provisional 2005/06 inspections figure for FOD has reached a record low, down from 55,195 in 2004/05 to just 46,032. This is almost 40 per cent lower than the corresponding figure for 2001/02. At the same time the number of workplaces enforced by HSE has risen dramatically, up from 525,841 in 2001/02 to 598,385 in 2004/05 with a corresponding impact on the frequency a workplace can expect to see an HSE inspector. In 2001/02 that would suggest a workplace inspection frequency of once every 7 years. By 2004/05 this had dropped by over a third to barely once every 11 years. In 2006, this is set to dip below once every 13 years.

Other government initiatives aimed at plugging the inspection gap have diverted funds that might otherwise have gone to HSE. The Workplace Health Connect (WHC) occupational health scheme, launched in February and run for HSE by a private company at a cost of £20m for a two-year pilot, has bombed spectacularly. HSE chief exec Geoffrey Podger told the May Select Committee WHC “had a problem in relation to take up.” He said even after improvements were introduced, it had only “managed to get the telephone service advice line up to around 50 per cent of expected calls, the visits up to around 90 per cent.” In June, HSE announced the WHC pilot in the south-east had been abandoned because of a funding shortfall.

Unsafe argument

HSE, though, says it is outcomes that count. Responding to the Hazards report in May, an HSE spokesperson said: “The most important question is whether what we’re doing is having the right effect. And the statistics show that it is. The rate of fatalities is at the lowest ever. The rate of major injuries is on the way down. And in the past five years, new cases of ill-health have fallen between 8-12 per cent.”

But the figures do not in fact support this conclusion. Figures published by HSE in August 2006 show that there was a record low number of workplace fatalities in 2004/05, when 223 deaths were recorded, and this fell still further in 2005/06 to 212 worker deaths. But the combined reported “fatal and major” injuries rate, a more reliable indicator based on tens of thousands of reported cases each year, places HSE’s conclusion in serious doubt. Since HSE introduced it its new strategy in 2003/04, Britain has seen a leap in fatal and major injury rates. In the three years 2000/01 to 2002/03, the reported fatal and major injuries rate for employees hovered around the 111 injuries per 100,000 workers mark. In 2003/04 it broke 121. HSE provisional figures for 2004/05 put it at above 118.

HSE’s claims on occupational ill-health reduction are even more suspect, particularly claims relying on Labour Force Survey (LFS) figures. New research from HSE adds to other evidence undermining these LFS estimates. The Workplace Health and Safety Survey (WHASS), conducted between August and December 2005 and published in May 2006, surveyed 10,016 workers. (5) It suggested a level of work-related ill-health of 9,800 cases per 100,000 workers, more than double that estimated by the LFS. Injuries requiring four or more days absence from work were 40 per cent higher, at 1,700 per 100,000 employees compared to LFS’s 1,200.

The WHASS report says the 26 per cent response rate could have introduced “response bias” leading to an over-estimation of the problem. However WHASS is only the latest of a string of recent reports suggesting the LFS figures, which HSE uses as the benchmark for its occupational health estimates and strategy evaluation, grossly under-estimate most causes of work-related ill-health (Hazards 94) and omit entire categories of occupational disease (Hazards 92), discrediting HSE’s baseline figures for health improvements.

Ill considered

As HSE increasingly adopts a “light touch” on inspection and enforcement – something called for by the government across all regulatory agencies (Hazards 91) – workers will be left at risk. Employees at Powertrain, a Birmingham car plant which closed in 2005, learnt this lesson the hard way. They fell victim to a “world’s largest” outbreak of occupational disease.

In April 2006, HSE announced there would be no safety prosecution of the firm where so far over 100 employees have been diagnosed with metalworking fluid-related health problems, 87 with occupational asthma and 24 with extrinsic allergic alveolitis (EEA).(6) HSE launched an investigation in 2004 following the chance discovery by hospital specialists of widespread respiratory ill-health among staff at the plant at Longbridge, Birmingham.

Announcing the findings of the investigation in April 2006, Sandra Caldwell, director of HSE’s field operations, said: “The outbreak at Powertrain is thought to be both the world’s largest linked to metalworking fluids, and the largest single outbreak of occupational asthma. It has changed the perception of the risk arising from the exposure to the mist from metalworking in the UK.” She added: “The HSE investigation has been long and thorough, and we now know that the cause of the disease was mist from metalworking machines, which was widespread throughout the factory.”

But this wasn’t a case of an exotic new disease, it was a well-recognised condition in engineering plants where metalworking fluids are badly controlled or managed. It was particularly well known in Birmingham. In 1991, ‘The cutting edge’, a Hazards factsheet on health effects of metalworking fluids, warned that “in the Birmingham area, oil mist exposure is the commonest recognised cause of occupational asthma.” It included an action checklist which, if observed, would almost certainly have prevented the outbreak. Hazards also warned of the dangers posed by used fluids and by bacterial contamination, identified by HSE as the causes of the Powertrain outbreak.

Dr Sherwood Burge, a respiratory disease specialist at the Birmingham Chest Clinic – the unit that spotted the Powertrain epidemic – issued the same warning at a 1989 Institute of Occupational Health conference in Birmingham.

The HSE report notes the mist had “long been acknowledged by some workers to be a nuisance within the factory with possible, but unspecified, health implications.” HSE was aware of a potential risk – staff from its HSL research arm had visited the firm in the mid-1990s to monitor mist levels. HSE issued three improvement notices in 2004, but only “once the scale of the outbreak became apparent.”

This is not an isolated case. Up to 60 workers at Koyo in South Yorkshire have developed the same conditions caused by the same exposures. HSE action there again amounted to too little, too late. And the academic literature is peppered with case histories.(7)

The Powertrain case history does not indicate a failure of occupational health intelligence or enforcement. It betrays a failure of both. The evidence of risk was in the academic literature. A warning had been sounded by respiratory disease specialists nearly two decades before. HSE’s own scientists had been alerted to the problem; the company was not short of advice.



Should do better

A report produced in 2005 for HSE by the Warwick Institute for Employment Research throws into question all of HSE’s assurances about it’s strategy’s positive impact. It concluded changes in the nature of work – particularly the decline of manufacturing and the emergence of services as Britain’s biggest sector – should have been accompanied by a bigger fall in the workplace accident and disease toll. 'Trends and context to rates of workplace injury’ (8) found that the general downward injury trend, far from reassuring, could have been anticipated given changes in the economy and the business cycle alone. And it added that a rise in major injuries after 2001 “is not explained based on changes in occupational composition,” suggesting HSE’s impact is lessening.

The authors conclude: “When the results from the statistical model to estimate series of predicted injury rates, it was observed that the series of predicted injury rates closely followed the series of actual injury rates, indicating that changes in the observable characteristics of individuals can account for movements in workplace injury rates over time.” They said “our analysis calls into question whether over-arching targets for health and safety provide an objective measure against which to judge the performance of the regulatory regime. Rates of workplace injury can also be affected by the location of the economy within the business cycle.”

The authors issue an explicit warning against use by HSE of accident figures as an indicator of its performance. “Whilst projected changes in the occupational composition of employment appear to be working in favour of HSE, these could be either offset or reinforced depending upon the relative position of the economy within the business cycle.” The report added: “The difficulty in proving a direct link between workplace injury rates and the regulatory activity is being able to identify the separate and additional contribution of HSE against a background of varying economic conditions and a continually evolving labour force.”

Whether an injury gets reported at all – and HSE’s data are based on reported accidents - is a factor almost entirely out of HSE’s control. The report noted: “In terms of our overall understanding of whether an individual is likely to suffer a reportable workplace injury, occupation is clearly demonstrated to dominate all other factors. Being a staff association or trade union member and job tenure are the second and third most important factors in determining whether an individual has had a reportable workplace injury.”

And the proportion of firms reporting accidents could have dropped dramatically. The number of firms enforced by HSE increased by almost 14 per cent between 2001/02 and 2004/05. The overwhelming majority of these firms are small private sector firms, identified by HSE as significantly less likely to report true absence levels. Announcing the findings of its Survey on Workplace Absence, Sickness and (ill) Health (SWASH) 2005 (9), published in July 2006, HSE noted the survey results “suggest that there is evidence of higher rates of employer under-recording of employee absence within the private sector, this being concentrated within smaller businesses.”

Future HSE claims of improvements based on its enforcement-lite strategy should be viewed with caution as the Warwick researchers say “based on occupational projections of employment, rates of workplace injury are expected to decline by approximately 6 to 8 per cent by 2012.”

HSE in danger

After facing a long-term funding freeze, amounting to a substantial budget reduction in real terms, there could be even greater financial pressures on HSE in coming years, and this could mean HSE inspections become an increasing rarity. HSE’s parent department in government, the Department for Work and Pensions, is facing a 5 per cent cut to its budget from 2008 on, and cost savings of that magnitude mean job cuts.

HSE’s new research centre in Buxton, the Health and Safety Laboratory built as a Private Finance Initiative project, is haemorrhaging money earmarked for health and safety work. The PFI-related service costs are so high the centre cannot now compete for the contracts it needs to remain viable. And some of the research it commissions from external organisations, including some major projects already underway, has been axed, pared-back or placed under threat. The £57m Bootle-based HSE Merseyside Centre, opened formally on 17 July 2006, also has a PFI-related funding blackhole.

HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger told HSE staff on 10 August 2006 that as part of a major cuts programme, 250-350 jobs are to go by March 2008 through a mixture of natural wastage, voluntary early retirement and through not filling existing vacancies. On top of that the safety watchdog is making cuts totalling £5.6m to “programme and other expenditure.”

In addition to savings on staff costs, £3m will be trimmed from the publicity budget, £250,000 from policy contracts, £1m from the out-sourced Workplace Health Connect programme and £1.3m from the extra-mural science and technology budget. The chief executive said the main reason for the funding shortfall “is simply that the Board's decision to boost HSE expenditure in 2005/6 has led to spending levels which, if unchecked, will go beyond the funds we have.”

HSE has already had to downgrade training requirements for inspectors to press novices into full inspection duties. The inspectorate is now so short of experienced staff, after the Buncefield explosion inspectors with little training or experience in major hazardous installations were required to undertake inspections at similar high risk facilities.

Geoffrey Podger and Health and Safety Commission chair Bill Callaghan won’t sort out this mess with soft soap and flannel, or by turning HSE into a souped-up advice agency. Money and adequate staffing is the solution. Without it, HSE will be all washed up.


1. UK workplace safety inspections now at a new low, TUC news release, 17 May 2006.

2. Sure, we’ll be safe: HSE is walking away from inspections, Hazards, Number 94, April-June 2006.

3. Uncorrected transcript of oral evidence, minutes of evidence taken before the Work and Pensions Committee, The Health and Safety Commission and Executive, 24 May 2006. CIEH news report

4. The strategy for workplace health and safety in Great Britain to 2010 and beyond. HSC, February 2004

5. Workplace Health and Safety Survey Programme: 2005 Worker survey first findings report, May 2006.

6. Outbreak of respiratory disease at Powertrain Ltd, Longbridge, Birmingham – emerging lessons, 2006.

7. Amit Gupta, Kenneth D. Rosenman. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis due to metal working fluids: Sporadic or under reported?, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 49, pages 423-433, June 2006.

8. Trends and context to rates of workplace injury, HSE Research Report RR386, 2005 [pdf]

9. Survey of Workplace Absence Sickness and (Ill) Health (SWASH) – 2005, HSE, July 2006 [pdf]





Does this look like
a success story to you?

HSE says its strategy is working. But with HSE inspections, prosecutions, convictions, notices and contact time on a downward trend, and major injury rates trending upwards, just who does HSE think the strategy is working for?