David Cameron’s Attack on Health and Safety

By Richard Abernethy

 January 15, 2012

“So one of the Coalition’s New Year resolutions is this: kill off the health and safety culture for good”. So declares British prime minister, David Cameron, in an article in the London Evening Standard (5 January 2012). Cameron boasts of “waging war against the excessive health and safety culture that has become an albatross around the neck of British businesses”.

The prime minister’s article contains not one word of concern for workers who are injured or sometimes killed in workplace accidents, or suffer from occupational illnesses. If it is too much for him to say anything positive about the work of union representatives, the Health and Safety Executive (a government agency whose funding has recently been cut by 35 percent) or local government, he might at least have managed a word of support for companies and managers who adhere to good health and safety standards. But no – each and every reference to health and safety is negative. He moans that it “saps personal responsibility and drains enterprise” and calls it “pointless time-wasting”.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, in the UK in the year 2011/2012, 171 people were killed at work, 200,000 reportable accidents (resulting in an absence of over three days) occurred, and workplace injuries and ill-health cost an estimated £14 billion. Cameron might take note of the last figure, even if he is indifferent to the others. It weighs against the indeterminate “billions each year” that he claims health and safety cost British businesses.

Cameron writes of “trusting people to use their common sense”, but my own experience of working life tells me that people are most likely to have accidents when rushing to meet a deadline, or when asked to do something outside their experience and training, such as moving equipment without being trained in safe lifting.

Some industries have accident rates well above average. Most hazardous of all is mining. Only 4,000 people still work in Britain’s much reduced mining industry, but five miners were killed during 2011: four at Gleision Colliery in South Wales, when the mine flooded, and one at Kellingley Colliery in South Yorkshire, in a roof collapse. The latter was the third death at Kellingley in four years. A miner died in a rock fall in 2008 and another after an equipment failure in 2007.

One of Cameron’s proposed changes is that businesses will no longer have to report minor accidents. Presumably this means that there will no longer be any statistics for minor accidents. Any business that is having a lot of minor accidents is likely to have a more serious one sooner or later.

In order to “help British businesses take on the world”, Cameron tells us he will do “everything possible to take the brakes off business”. It seems unlikely that British capitalism can gain much competitive edge by pennypinching on health and safety, once the costs of absence, sick pay and compensation are taken into account. It may be the idea of regulation, rather than its actual cost to business, that Cameron is steamed up about. His article is remarkable for its use of violent metaphors. The prime minister writes of “waging war” (once) and “killing off” (twice) – words that should come back to haunt him next time there is an industrial disaster.

This attack on health and safety is a threat to all workers. Already we have been told that we must accept below-inflation wage increases (or in some cases actual pay cuts), work later in life and receive lower pensions when we retire. Now, in addition to all that, Cameron expects us to accept a riskier working environment.

Even where there are strong health and safety regulations and employers have positive health and safety policies it is important for workers to have effective organisation in the workplace to ensure that these are applied in practice. Now, with the government taking a stridently negative attitude and promising a bonfire of the regulations, it is more important than ever to fight for safe, healthy conditions in every place of work.

A health and safety culture should be part and parcel of any decent society. If capitalism cannot provide us with that (and we have David Cameron’s word for it), then that is a potent argument for replacing capitalism with a new society that can.