Workplace injury rates in the UK appear to be deteriorating, but is voluntary guidance enough to reverse the decline

The incidents of workplace illness and injury in the UK appear to be moving in the wrong direction.

Two million people in the UK suffered from ill health which they thought was work-related in 2005, figures for last year show that the number increased by 200,000. Also in 2006, over 140,000 accidents occurred in the workplace resulting in injury and 241 people were killed at work—a rate of 0.8 per 100,000 people, which is still well below the US equivalent for the same year of 3.9 per 100,000.

Despite HSE issuing 20% more notices with fines totaling over £13m, the new figures released by the British health and safety regulator show that government targets to reduce work related ill-health are unlikely to be met.

The deteriorating situation has encouraged the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) to join the Institute of Directors (IoD) in launching a new set of guidelines designed to remind directors that it is their responsibility to take the lead on health and safety issues and establish policies and practices that make it an integral part of their culture and values.

Nevertheless, it has emerged that fewer than half of all companies have appointed a director with responsibility for health and safety. A report from the construction worker’s union Ucatt said research by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) showed that only 44% of companies had appointed a senior official responsible for health and safety since voluntary guidance on director’s duties was first introduced in 2001.

“Although the guidance is not a new law in itself, breach of it can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings under the existing legislation.

Steffan Groch, health and safety partner at DWF

‘Voluntary guidance therefore does not work,’ said the Center for Corporate Accountability (CCA) in a release published alongside the report on the same day as the HSE/IoD guidelines.

Union leaders have echoed the call saying that the voluntary approach to director’s responsibility for health and safety had ‘completely failed’ and it was time statutory legal duties for directors were introduced.

The Ucatt report also stated that HSE commissioned research found that ‘61% of duty holders agree or strongly agree that individuals believing they could possibly be imprisoned is essential or important for enforcement to have a deterrent effect.

David Bergman, director of the CCA said: ‘This report shows that many of HSE’s arguments in support of voluntary guidance and against legal change have been misleading, and that in fact its own commissioned research supports the argument for legal change. The report also shows that potential health and safety benefits in changing the law are so significant that a failure to do so borders on recklessness.’

But Paul Hopkin, technical director of AIRMIC, who had a hand in the new guidelines, said current legal frameworks were adequate at establishing a duty of care on directors. ‘The 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act has very specific duties on directors for their H&S obligations,’ he said. ‘The new guidance provides practical advice on what directors should do to fulfill their legal obligations.’

“The new guidance provides practical advice on what directors should do to fulfill their legal obligations.

Paul Hopkin, technical director of AIRMIC

Supporting the new guidance, chair of HSC, Judith Hackitt, said the challenge ahead was changing behaviour: ‘We use a range of enforcement measures to tackle workplace ill-health and injuries and we do not hesitate to prosecute where necessary. The rising enforcement figures show that negligence in workplace health and safety is not tolerated.’

While, Steffan Groch, health and safety partner at DWF, claimed that the guidance—although voluntary—could deliver some legal clout and that directors who fail to follow it could face prosecution: ‘Although the guidance is not a new law in itself, breach of it can be used as evidence in criminal proceedings under the existing legislation.’

‘It is ironic,’ he said. ‘That something that has been produced for the benefit of directors could potentially be used against them should they face prosecution. Our concern is that it may be used as a template as to how directors will be interviewed under caution for an offence under the new Corporate Manslaughter Act.’

Commenting on the implications of the 2007 Corporate Manslaughter and Homicide Act (CMHA), Hopkin added: ‘The responsibility for corporate manslaughter has been something that previously can be made to stick in companies with a clear command and control structure, the new CMHA does the same for companies with a limited partnership structure. It tidies up and makes the allegation easier to prove regardless of company structure.’

Groch added: ‘Directors should make sure that they read and follow the guidance. They should now review the organisation’s safety management systems and revisit their contracts of employment. If necessary, they should seek external advice and undertake sufficient training to be able to discharge their responsibilities effectively.’