Shooting the Messenger

The Health and Safety Executive isn’t working: so instead it tries to silence its critics

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 21st May 1998.

Dr Charles Woolfson isn’t often regarded as a subversive. He’s a senior lecturer at Glasgow University and Secretary of the Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Research Network. So he was puzzled when he found he had been singled out for special treatment by a government agency.

At the beginning of this month, Dr Woolfson received a copy of a confidential memo from the Health and Safety Executive’s “Open Government Unit”. It warned recipients that four individuals, Dr Woolfson among them, were “becoming persistant in their enquiries to HSE.” “We wish to monitor”, the note continued, “those who appear to have an interest in a range of HSE’s activities and who may be looking to exploit replies received in ways unfavourable to HSE … any contact with these people should be reported to the Open Government Unit.”

When the agency’s novel approach to open government was questioned in parliament, the health and safety minister Angela Eagle offered an intriguing interpretation. “The purpose of the memorandum,” she explained, “is to ensure that the named enquirers get all the information to which they are entitled in a consistent, fully explained and usable form”.

Ms Eagle agreed to deposit a copy of the memo in the House of Commons library, but, in accordance with the principles of open government, she carefully blotted out all the names. As a result, MPs couldn’t see that the recipients included the HSE’s director-general, while the objects of surveillance included not only Dr Woolfson but also the editor of the highly-respected Hazards Magazine. None of them could exactly be described as enemies of society, nor are they necessarily the HSE’s most persistant enquirers.

So why were these researchers lucky enough to receive the special help of which Angela Eagle boasted? It could have something to do with the fact that the four men have documented some of the most alarming regulatory failures in recent British history.

Take Dr Woolfson, for example. His work on the regulation of the offshore oil industry since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster points to continuing weaknesses in inspection and enforcement. Offshore and on land, his research suggests that the Health and Safety Executive simply isn’t working.

Of the burnings, poisonings, amputations, blindings and other injuries suffered daily by British workers, only 40 per cent are reported. Of those, the HSE investigates just nine per cent in Scotland and four per cent in England. The agency can’t reveal how many of these “investigations” include site inspections, or how many lead to prosecutions. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the answer is deplorably few. Even when these cases do reach the courts, the fines are pitiful: £5420 is now the average price of a human life. Though, as the HSE concedes, the great majority of all workplace injuries are caused by “managerial failure”, dangerous employers can rest easy; their failures are unlikely either to be examined or seriously punished.

The long-predicted result of this regulatory crisis is that, for the first time in decades, fatalities and serious injuries in the workplace have risen, by 20 per cent in the last recorded year. Despite the nationwide transfer of employment from manufacturing to service industries, work is becoming a more and more dangerous thing to do.

None of this should surprise us. The debilitation of the HSE was part of the mandate of the last governments’ “Deregulation Unit”. The HSE’s budget was butchered. Inspectors were told to stop”stifling” free enterprise with “red tape” and start using “friendly persuasion” rather than prosecution to enforce safety standards. Incapable now of monitoring business, the HSE has opted instead for the cheaper expedient of monitoring its critics.

Thank God, then, for the change of government, and thank God for ministers like Angela Eagle who, only last week, announced that “Accidents and occupational health exact a terrible human cost that we simply must reduce.” From this stirring statement, we might conclude that the HSE’s maimed finances are being restored. Well, we’d be wrong. Not only have the cuts been maintained, but the manifesto promise of a new crime of corporate manslaughter has been deferred. For Angela Eagle, the protection of the HSE’s director-general appears to be a rather more pressing matter than the protection of the workforce.

The best indiction of the health of a democracy is the way in which it treats its critics. When good people, pursuing the legitimate interests of society, are treated like public enemies, you can be sure that something is going seriously wrong.