Employers are increasingly likely to go unpunished after workplace accidents, according to research by Prospect Union that reveals the number of investigations dropped by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) due to insufficient resources has surged.
The research, using HSE’s own figures, shows that in 2016/17 just two mandatory investigations were cancelled because of insufficient resources compared to in 2021/22 the figure was 389.
Overall cash funding for HSE fell dramatically from £228m in 2010 to £126m in 2019. There has been a recovery since then to £185m in 2022. The long-term cash decline and overall significant real-terms funding decline (current funding is still 43% below 2010 once one-off ringfenced payments are taken into account) have left the HSE with a staffing and skills crisis that will be difficult to overcome.
The COVID-19 pandemic really highlighted that if you want safe workplaces then you need to have an effective regulator in place with sufficient skills and capacity to inspect workplaces and hold employers to account. If appropriate levels of inspections and mandatory investigations are not happening, half of them because of a lack of resources, then that should worry anyone who values safety at work. The bottom line is that if effective investigations cannot be carried out then those who are at fault for an accident may get away with it, depriving victims of justice and making workplaces less safe.
The evidence suggests that most businesses have the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to manage safety risk for themselves. The maturity of business and their increased level of understanding of safety risks means that the HSE can look to regulate in different ways.
Businesses will be left more and more to self-regulate.
They will not be routinely inspected to make sure they comply. Instead, they will be “engaged” through the likes of call centres, digital platforms and social media campaigns.
Although current available digital tools are more sophisticated, this approach has been criticised by previous select committee examinations of HSE.