HSE Staff Cuts Betray Commitment
To Workplace Health & Safety

HSE overspend is being blamed for the imminent cuts of between 250 to 350 in the HSE staffing levels.

Further cuts in spending to the tune of £5.5 million will further deteriorate the service say unions, the biggest of which will come from the publicity budget: £3 million. Policy contracts, and the out-sourced Workplace Health Connect programme are amongst the remainder of areas which will be effected.

The trade union PCS, condemned reductions in staffing levels which were announced earlier this month by the head of HSE, Chief Executive, Geoffrey Podger. Offices across England, Wales and Scotland will all be effected.

The PCS notes that the cuts have nothing to do with those driven by government across the civil service, but come from overspending within HSE itself. The union believes that cutting staff will inevitably lead to less Health & Safety inspections and an increase in workplace accidents and deaths.

Chris Hurley, Branch Secretary of the PCS Branch in HSE, said: "My members are dismayed by the size of these cuts. Seven weeks ago the chief executive set alarm bells ringing when he told staff he expected 'around 100 posts' would have to go."

PCS is calling for a full & frank explanation of the reasons for this financial mess.

PCS NEC member Paula Brown said" Members in HSE are committed people, working flat-out to protect the UK workforce from cowboy employers and careless practices. This is vital work which needs a dedicated team to deliver it. We are now concerned for the stress levels of HSE's own workforce as staffing levels fall and workloads don't. PCS will continue to press HSE for a guarantee of no compulsory redundancies, and to look at other cost cutting alternatives."

Meanwhile, Prospect, the union representing 1,750 inspectors, scientists and other professionals in the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), has pointed out that the announcement coincides with a new report, published in Hazards magazine, that highlights how at the same time HSE is implementing its new strategy to move away from hands-on workplace inspections, figures for fatalities and major injury rates across the UK are rising.

The union fears that this will only be the tip of the iceberg coming on the back of real terms cuts in HSE’s budget since 2002, and in the face of likely further cuts given the 5% reduction target identified for its parent body, the Department of Work and Pensions, in the last comprehensive spending review.

Prospect HSE branch chair Steven Kay said: “While we welcome the commitment to try to achieve these losses through natural wastage and voluntary redundancies, any reduction in HSE staff numbers will inevitably impact on the drive to improve safety in UK workplaces. Evidence shows it is inspection backed by enforcement that is the most effective way of ensuring employers comply with their health and safety responsibilities.

“It will result in a drop in the number of prosecutions and inspections undertaken and could see a further restriction of the accident selection criteria used to prompt an investigation as HSE tries to maintain the 60:40 balance it seeks to strike between preventive and reactive work. Less investigations will mean workers that suffer horrendous injuries will not get justice.”

But condemnation goes further and is ultimately laid at the Government's door as it stands accused of starving the HSE of sufficient funds to function as its mandate requires.

Seen increasingly as more concerned with the needs of business and profits, it is accused of placing the employees health and safety at the bottom of its agenda.

It is an argument that is hard to reject according to the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC).

Their safety officer Ian Tasker said: 'This announcement defies belief and it is unacceptable that the health and safety of workers can be compromised in this way by a government that starves the Health and Safety Executive of adequate funding and continues to promote a wide reaching and extremely concerning deregulation agenda.'

He said STUC would support a union campaign to ensure there are 'the resources to guarantee that adequate and regular enforcement activity remains the cornerstone of our enforcement regime and the increasing drift away from the protection of workers is halted'.

Amicus offshore oil and gas officers reacted with alarm.

They said that there is already a dangerously low level of inspectors and inspections, from years of under-investment in the HSE, and cutting inspectors further will only worsen the already precarious state of safety policing in Great Britain.

They pointed out that the job cuts fly in the face of all the evidence about the effectiveness of inspections in keeping employers in check.

In 2004 the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee investigated the operation of the HSE and, after assessing comprehensive evidence, argued that, ”the number of inspectors in HSE's Field Operations Directorate should be doubled” over the next 6-7 years” and that “substantial additional resources are needed in the next three years.”

This figure was recently echoed by IOSH (Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, Europe's leading body for health and safety professionals) President Neil Budworth, who said IOSH “would like to see something like a doubling of the number of inspectors out there on the streets”.

The Guardian Unlimited, the on-line face of the newspaper, made no bones about the fact that the HSE itself is laying blame squarely at the Government:

Their news item quoted a HSE spokesperson as saying the job losses were part of budget cuts at the Department for Work and Pensions designed to achieve savings of £8m over two years.

The article adds: "....the major hazards area, which includes nuclear installations, onshore and offshore fuel storage and oil rigs, would be exempt. "They are charged back to the employers, they are not part of the anticipated cuts."

He said 350 job losses was a "worst case scenario". Almost 90 temporary staff would not have their contracts renewed this year and the HSE was looking at ways of saving money that would not involve front-line staff. "Quite substantial savings have been identified and this will impact on the number of jobs which will be lost. We will know in the next financial year. We don't know exactly where the cuts will come."

The HSE will soon start discussions with the department regarding its budget from April 2008. The spokesman dismissed any suggestion that these discussions would lead to a demand for further cuts as "speculation".

All this again of course raises the specter of a Labour Government residing over rising employees death at work, fewer prosecutions and even fewer convictions, decreasing fine levels and with now no major deterrent to stop the trend.

Many trade unions feel that the belief this Government has that business can be trusted to police itself and that volunteerism in H&S actually works, is a total betrayal of principle and is purely a Tory stance.

sources: Guardian, Amicus, Prospect, STUC, Risks

 
 
 

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