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Published 8 June 2022
Alongside the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, there is another anniversary that is close to all health and safety practitioners – it has been 50 years since the publication of the Robens Report which led to the passing of the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and the creation of Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the following year. According to Philip White (HSE Director of Regulation), speaking at the Safety and Health Expo in London on 17th May, the 1974 Act has “stood the test of time”.
It is timely that the HSE has published its bold 10 year strategy – Protecting People and Places: HSE strategy 2022-2032 – setting out the HSE’s objectives with regard to enforcement for the next decade. The strategy was supplemented by the publication of the HSE Business Plan 2022/23 which covers the first transitional year of the strategy.
As acknowledged in the introduction by Sarah Albon and Sarah Newton, HSE Chief Executive and Board Chair respectively, the HSE’s mission is expanding to address future challenges, with a role that goes beyond worker protection, to include public safety assurance on a range of issues. The new strategy sets out a refreshed priorities for HSE that reflect its enhanced responsibilities:
It is arguable that ‘Health’ has often been perceived to be the poor relation of ‘Safety’. The HSE acknowledges that whilst the UK is statistically one of the safest countries in the world to work, this isn’t the same for work related ill health, as current trends show that this is increasing with the most commonly reported causes being stress, depression or anxiety. This new strategic objective is directly driven by this trend, and the HSE states that it will deliver interventions that make a real difference. Deliverables in 2022/23 will include (i) the promotion of the Working Minds campaign via stakeholder engagement and extending the champions’ network, (ii) co-designing and launching NEBOSH qualification in the prevention and management of work-related stress, and (iii) publishing guidance to empower employers to support disabled workers and those with long-term health conditions.
The HSE acknowledges that its remit goes beyond workplaces. The passing of the Building Safety Act 2022 a few weeks ago means that the HSE can now formally establish the Building Safety Regulator (BSR) in a similar way to how the Health & Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 led to the formation of the HSE. The BSR will oversee the safety and standards of all buildings and regulate high-rise buildings, and use its regulatory expertise and experience to help keep residents in England safe in their homes. There is also a nod to the HSE’s enhanced remit, following the UK’s departure from the EU, for the regulation of the trade and use of chemicals, pesticides, biocides, and detergents.
The pace of technological advancement goes hand-in-hand with the Government’s agenda to move towards ‘net zero’ by 2050 and the development of sustainable, clean energy. Transitioning to a carbon neutral economy presents new risks, and the HSE acknowledges that it will need to apply scientific expertise and continue to work alongside initiatives like the Gas Safe Register.
The UK consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injury compared to other large European economies, with a long term downward trend since 2012/13. The HSE accepts that maintaining this enviable record will not be an easy task. The changing world of work, together with the introduction of new technologies in the workplace and the growth of the gig economy and hybrid working, means that the HSE will need to adapt and respond to this changing landscape. The HSE has committed to concentrating on the most serious risks, and targeting industries with the greatest hazards and sectors with the worst risk management record. However, it is interesting that the strategy reminds us of the fundamental principle of health and safety law: those who create risks are best placed to manage them. The document refers to the maturity of businesses and their increased level of understanding of safety risks, which means that the HSE can look to “regulate in different ways” (which is left undefined) and focus on achieving similar improvements in workplace health (as opposed to safety).
The strategy emphasises the importance of securing the commitment of their inspectors and supporting them to deliver at their very best to deliver the new strategic objectives.
Undoubtedly, the HSE played a critical role in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including the development of cross-government COVID-secure guidance for businesses. However, and despite an additional £14.2 million funding made available in May 2020, HSE was required to reprioritise its resources to ensure that key sector workplaces were COVID-secure and could remain operationally safe, and devised a smaller programme of inspections and campaigns for the high risk sectors compared to what it had originally planned for the year. Also, the published statistics show that the overall number of prosecutions for health and safety offences has reduced each year since 2016. In response, the HSE emphasised that there have been no changes to its policy for decision-making but changes to sentencing guidelines for health and safety prosecutions that came into force in February 2016 have led to prosecutions taking longer. The HSE stated that it remained committed to prosecuting where there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and it is in the public interest to do so. Considering that the UK is facing a cost of living crisis, and the Government may be required to reprioritise its budgets accordingly, the statistics over the coming years for health and safety enforcement, and in particular the figures relating to the new strategic objectives, will be an interesting read. The HSE acknowledges in its business plan that there is uncertainty, but that it remains confident that it can respond with agility if resources are required to be redirected. This may impact some of its objectives and deliverables.
Undoubtedly, the HSE’s ‘Protecting People and Places’ strategy is bold and ambitious, and the objectives are reactive to the changing landscape of how we live and work in this post-pandemic world. With new risks to health and safety comes new challenges, not only for the HSE as the enforcing body but for organisations who are ultimately responsible to mitigate against these risks.
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