Health and safety are key aspects of every workplace, with responsible employers taking steps to ensure their workforce can go about their duties in safety. This depends on a regime of regulation and enforcement, which is administered and implemented by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Without that threat of effective regulatory oversight and sanctions, rogue employers are far more likely to cut corners on safety measures or worse, ignore them altogether. Perusal of the HSE website shows all too clearly what happens when an employer believes that the safety rules do not apply to them.
Now, however, the situation could be about to deteriorate as figures from the Prospect union indicate that the number of accident investigations dropped due to insufficient resources has increased dramatically.
Over the past decade, both public funding and staff numbers at the HSE have reduced, and this has had a detrimental effect on the organisation’s ability to carry out its investigatory and enforcement duties.
The number of mandatory investigations [meant to take place after an accident at work that results in death or serious injury] that were not carried out because of a lack of resources was two in 2016-17 but by 2021-22, that figure had risen to 389.
Non–investigation of a mandatory incident
According to the HSE’s Incident Selection Criteria Guidance, the grounds for not investigating incidents that would normally be investigated may include:
- where an investigation is impractical, e.g. unavailability of key witnesses, key evidence no longer available;
- no reasonably practicable precautions available to prevent the incident\accident or its recurrence;
- investigating the accident will mean the Local Authority will be acting ultra vires (outside its powers);
- there is a conflict of interest between the LA as a regulator and duty holder, in which case the appropriate enforcing authority should be notified, or
- inadequate resources due to other priorities.
In 2003, the HSE employed 4,200 staff but by 2010, this had dropped to 3,700 – and 2,400 by 2022. Similarly, government funding reduced from £228 million in 2010 to £126 million in 2019. In fairness, it should be pointed out that in 2022, this had increased to £185 million, with an additional £90 million from fees and the recovery of costs following legal action.
The number of HSE proactive investigations rose from 14,880 in 2020-21 to 16,900 in 2021-22.
Concerns have been expressed at the possible consequences of the increase in serious incident investigations not being progressed. If effective investigations cannot be carried out, then employers who are in breach of H&S regulations will escape the consequences, and the deterrent effect of legal action will be reduced as rogue employers realise that the chance of them being investigated is low.
The COVID pandemic of 2020-21 highlighted why it was important to have a H&S regulator with the resources to inspect enough workplaces and hold employers to account if they were found wanting.
It stands to reason that employers should continue to observe all safety regulations and laws surrounding their sector and not to assume that they will not be caught and subject to legal action. The consequences of H&S breaches are severe enough without evidence of deliberate evasion of legal responsibilities through negligence.