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Inspection-retreat plans disclosed in leaked letter

11 March 2011

The HSE is proposing to slash the number of proactive inspections it carries out in light of its 35-per-cent cut in government funding.

The BBC’s File on 4 programme has obtained an HSE letter in which chief executive Geoffrey Podger reportedly outlines plans to reduce the safety watchdog’s inspections by a third.

Three high-hazard sectors – nuclear, offshore and chemicals – will be protected from any proposed cuts, the letter is reported to state. However, the letter also outlines the industries where proactive inspections could be entirely withdrawn.

According to the BBC, some of those industries under consideration pose “significant risk”, yet the letter describes inspections in these industries as not “necessary or useful”. In some other cases, the letter suggests that the “relative cost-effectiveness” of carrying out unannounced visits could warrant halting such activity in the future.

The letter is also said to propose replacing face-to-face contact by inspectors with more Web-based initiatives.

Asked about both the letter and the proposals outlined in it, an HSE spokesperson said: “Discussions are ongoing on future ways of working and a final decision has not been reached – it would be inappropriate for us to comment further at this time.”

Construction workers’ union UCATT believes the plans are a blueprint for a rise in workplace injuries and deaths. Last month, the HSE carried out a blitz of construction sites across the country, with a high proportion visited found to be unsafe.

Commenting on the HSE’s possible move towards online awareness-raising initiatives, UCATT general secretary Alan Ritchie said: “The softly, softly approach has been proven to be a failure. If companies don’t care about safety, then a glossy leaflet or a flashy website is not going to change their mind – particularly if they know that it will not be followed up by inspections and a prosecution.”

John Gollaglee, head of the health and safety team at law firm Pannone, said the HSE has not had the resources to carry out spot-checks across businesses in all sectors for some time, and that the proposal will mean the present focus of inspectors on organisations in high-risk industries will continue.

However, he warned that the impact of fewer inspections could also indirectly hinder the HSE’s advisory capabilities. He said: “The HSE was established to advise employers on health and safety law, as well as to enforce the law. With fewer inspectors and resources available, the concern is that the support function within the HSE is being eroded to the detriment of everyone.”

Prospect – the union that represents HSE inspectors condemned the proposal, describing cuts in inspections as a “false economy”. Negotiator Mike Macdonald said: “Such inspections are at the cutting edge of HSE’s work and saves industry and the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds in lost working days and medical bills."

The union says the government wants the HSE to increase levels of prosecutions rather than prevent accidents and illness. Commented Macdonald: “If this is an example of how the Big Society will operate, then it is going to be a more dangerous one, where workplaces are effectively deregulated and where the safety of workers is subordinated to good performance figures.”

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