Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Does UK Health and Safety Legislation Rely upon a Poorly-Resourced Enforcement Agency, a Limited Scheme for Employee Involvement, and a Misplaced Emphasis on Self-Regulation?

Academic journal article Public Personnel Management

Does UK Health and Safety Legislation Rely upon a Poorly-Resourced Enforcement Agency, a Limited Scheme for Employee Involvement, and a Misplaced Emphasis on Self-Regulation?

Article excerpt

Introduction

The effectiveness of the United Kingdom's health and safety legislation relies on three principal mechanisms, an enforcement agency, employee involvement, and self-regulation on the part of employers. But are these tools effective in terms of reducing workplace injuries and making the workplace safer? In other words, are enforcement, employee involvement, and self-regulation working?

When introduced, the statutes had broad consequences for worker health and safety and in doing so, placed certain obligations on employers and employees, respectively, which were designed to reduce health and safety risks in the workplace.

The Act, for instance, imposes a duty on employees to act reasonably, and "take reasonable care" for his or her own safety and for the safety of others. However, the majority of the legislation is directed at the employer's obligations, with Section 2 noting that it is the duty of every employer, insofar as is "reasonably practicable," to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees, which includes providing a safe working environment, appropriate training, safe systems of work,

and a safe place of work. (1) The principal provision within the MHSW is the requirement of employers to conduct a risk assessment. (2)

Enforcement of Health and Safety Laws

The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 set up two bodies, the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). The HSC was set up to administer the law, while the HSE, was established to enforce the law.

Enforcement is accomplished through the use of Inspectors that are empowered to conduct investigations, examinations and seize evidence. They may enter workplaces, along with law enforcement (if needed), compel parties to answer questions, as well as, seize and take control of hazardous substances. (3)

Section 21 of the Act gives Inspectors the authority to issue Improvement Notices in cases where health and safety provisions have been violated. The notice cites the improvements, which are required, and a time frame in which to complete the changes. (4)

In addition, Section 22 authorizes Inspectors to issue a Prohibition Notice where a health and safety violation involves risk of personal injury. This type of notice stops activity until the risk is removed. By Section 25, the Inspector may take whatever action deemed appropriate if there is an impending, imminent danger to health and safety. Under Section 42, courts may impose financial penalties (fines) and/or order an employer to take measures to eliminate dangers. (5)

Are these enforcement mechanisms effective? Some experts do not think so. Stephanie Trotter, for example, in the New Law Journal comments:

   In view of yet another rail crash and the recent increase in deaths
   on construction sites, is a code enough? Tony Knox, a crash victim,
   wrote to Railtrack three months ago about poorly maintained bridges
   and tunnels. What is shocking is that apparently he did not even
   receive a reply. Surely, it is the system that needs changing? (6)

In 1998-99, 4,516 Prohibition Notices and 6,328 Improvement Notices, respectively, were served, while only 1,797 prosecutions were brought. In addition, an inquiry by the West Midlands Health and Safety Advice Centre into workplace deaths from 1988 to 1999 in the West Midlands concluded that the HSE had failed to proceed with prosecutions in 24 out of 28 cases where appropriate evidence was present. (7)

And according to research by the Centre for Corporate Accountability, the HSE only investigated 11% of serious injuries in 1999. And of the cases it investigated, 10% resulted in a prosecution. (8)

Anna Edwards in the Industrial Law Journal states:

   ... a number of texts have emerged which seek to evaluate the
   impact of this legislation [the Health and Safety at Work Act
   I974,1 upon the health and safety of those at the work place. … 
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