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Years of attacks mean our health and safety system is well and truly broken

For decades many on the right of the political spectrum in Britain have strategically described health and safety as pointless red tape, leaving workers to suffer illness, injury and even death, warns REBECCA LONG BAILEY MP

AS THE TUC has said, every year more people are killed at work than in wars. Most don’t die of mystery ailments, or in tragic freak “accidents.” They die because an employer or indeed the government decided their safety just wasn’t that important a priority.

No worker goes to work to die, but as the Hazards campaign estimated in March this year, at least six million workers are made ill and 60,000 are killed.

Sadly the real number of people injured by work is estimated to be many times more than the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) estimate.

In my younger years I spent a short time learning the ropes of health and safety law.

What I witnessed shook me to my core. From cases of workers who had lost their hearing due to occupational noise levels or those affected by long-term exposure to noxious chemicals, to cases involving those who had tragically lost their lives in the most horrific industrial accidents.

I wondered what those people thought on the day they secured those jobs, whether deep within that feeling of elation many of us have felt on securing an income, they realised that it came at a terrible cost.

I doubt it even entered their minds, because in one of the most advanced economies in the world, with a raft of health and safety legislation currently in place (albeit limited), most of us naively assume that our workplace has the systems and procedures in place to keep us safe and well.

Sadly, however, in Britain over recent years, deregulation, attacks on trade unions, restricting access to justice and starving the institutions that were meant to enforce workplace safety protections of funding has meant our health and safety system is well and truly broken.

Indeed on enforcement alone, House of Commons Library figures commissioned in 2020 show that funding for the Health and Safety Executive — the body that enforces breaches of health and safety law at work — was at £239.4 million in 2009/10.

In 2019/20 that figure had dropped staggeringly to £141m.

In terms of staff numbers, there were 1,495 inspectors in 2009/10 but just 978 in 2017/18 after falling every year in a row. 

The British Safety Council chair Lawrence Waterman told the BBC in 2020: “There is an argument that workplaces are so rarely inspected that it’s probably more likely that you’ll win the lottery than be visited by an inspector.” 

The latest enforcement statistics also expose a catastrophic fall in HSE enforcement activity, now at a record low, with just 185 convictions.

By comparison in 2009/10 there were 735 recorded convictions — which was actually a record low at that time. 

As the Hazards campaign states: “It means since the Conservatives came to power in 2010, the number of workers harmed by their jobs each year has increased by 30 per cent, but convictions have fallen by 75 per cent.”

However it is not simply austerity that is to blame for these shocking statistics.

For decades many on the right of the political spectrum in Britain have strategically described health and safety as pointless red tape, unnecessary burdens that only serve to hold our economy back.

Indeed who can forget 2012 when then Conservative prime minister David Cameron said that his new year’s resolution was to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” and only this week the BBC has reported that Boris Johnson said he wanted to reduce childcare costs by easing health and safety rules, thus creating strain and risk on an already dramatically underfunded sector.

He would do well to actually address the root causes of the cost-of-living crisis: such as endemic low pay and job insecurity, a broken housing system or privatised utilities that have habitually prioritised dividend extraction over the needs of the consumer. 

He will not, however, as it is clear that the Conservatives will always favour an economic and governing model that limits the powers of state intervention in such a crisis and redistributes wealth upwards rather than outwards.

More worrying however is what could be coming down the tracks.

The government is due to table its Brexit freedoms Bill shortly and many fear that this will contain a bumper selection box of back-door attempts to cut regulation and water down workers’ rights.

The exact detail of this Bill remains to be seen of course, but many of us are already starting to join the ominous dots.

As the government website states: “The Bill will make it easier to amend or remove outdated ‘retained EU law’ … These reforms will cut £1 billion of red tape for UK businesses, ease regulatory burdens and contribute to the government’s mission to unite and level up the country.”

What is clear is that as a movement we will be facing a monumental battle ahead to protect the three simple factors that make work safer and healthier: strong laws, strict enforcement and strong, active trade unions. 

And so as we come together this week in solidarity on International Workers’ Memorial Day, take a moment to reflect:

Not only do we remember those who have tragically lost their lives at work but we also pledge to fight for the living.

Rebecca Long Bailey is Labour member of Parliament for Salford and Eccles.

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