Safety can’t be a political football

Iain Dale made an observation on his blog this morning that went as follows:

Have you noticed something? Trade Unions very rarely call their members out on strike over pay any longer. Nowadays it is on ‘safety’ issues. Usually spurious ones. This now seems de rigeur for the RMT whose strike today is ostensibly on the safety consequences, and the Fire Brigades Union also cites safety as one of the reasons for their strike. This is an interesting development because the issues are almost unresolvable. The unions in these sectors can cite any changes in working patterns as damaging to safety and the employers deny it. The trouble is, neither can prove it one way or the other.

Of course the unions never mention that company directors can be criminally liable if they introduce measures which compromise safety. That’s a pretty powerful disincentive to do so.

His comment may or may not be valid. There may be a sudden trend in the citing of safety issues as a reason for industrial disputes. But that’s not a new thing and we can never assume that safety concerns aren’t valid just because a Trade Union is mentioning them. One of the functions of trade unions is to ensure the safety of their members and the public.

The implication that safety isn’t a problem and that unions only use it as an excuse or leverage, is a dangerous one to make. Particularly at a time when 49% of British workplaces have never been visited by a health and safety inspector.

Even though there is clear evidence that inspections are the most effective tool in ensuring employers live up to their duty to comply with health and safety regulations, we still find that only 16% of companies who employ less than 50 people have received an inspection in the last year. Even in organisations with over 1000 staff, only 33% were inspected in the previous 12 months.

Without inspection and enforcement, the likelihood of employers make attempts to improve health and safety will drop and we will see a trend of increasing claims from trade unions and employee organisations about safety issues.

An increase in the number of employers (from 52% to 61%) who confirm making improvements due to the possibility of an inspection demonstrates that the threat of enforcement and legal action is a key agent of change in companies, and that employers can’t be relied upon to maintain a focus on health and safety issues without such a regime of inspection.

Cuts in spending – the Health and Safety Executive lost 35% of its annual funding – can only damage safety in workplaces around the country.

In 2009, over 30 million days were lost due to work-related absence, at a cost to employers of £3.7 billion. How much of that would be avoided if people weren’t so quick to dismiss trade union issues with health and safety?


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