International Workers Memorial Day 2016

Health and safety at work

Gordon Dalyell, Digby Brown Partner 

International Workers Memorial Day is always an opportunity to consider the protection given to employees within the workplace, and what we can do as a society to enhance that. The referendum on Europe, due to take place on 23 June, provides particular relevance to this debate.

European Union Health and Safety

Membership of the European Union has provided important safeguards for workers in relation to many issues, including pregnancy, maternity and paternity rights, temporary and agency workers, working time, collective consultation, and transfer of undertakings.

However it is in relation to health and safety that we should concentrate on today.

Contrary to what some believe, health and safety was not created by the European Union. The duties of employers to provide a safe workplace, safe work equipment, safe systems of work, and to properly train employees, have been long established in our common law, decades before integration of Europe.

However what the creation of the various communities, starting with the Coal and Steel Community in 1950, followed by the EU, did was to formalise the recognition of just how important health and safety is within the workplace.

Health and safety statistics speak for themselves

In 1974, the number of employees killed at work in the UK was over 650.

In 2014/15, 142 people lost their lives at work across the UK, 6 more than the previous year and 33 less than in 2010/11, and over 130 less than in 2000/01.

However, although there has been a decrease of 80% in the number of employees killed at work since 1974, it is still142 too many.

The number of reported injuries at work in 1974 was also over 330,000 compared to around 76,000 now, showing another decrease.

While the current figures continue a downward trend, the Health and Safety Executive conclusion is that, as in other areas, the trend is starting to plateau.

Enforcement of health and safety regulations

There was a total of 728 prosecutions across the UK in 2014/15, including 72 in Scotland, related to the enforcement of health and safety regulations.

This represents a rise of 49%, and of course should be welcomed.

However, as encouraging as this is, bear in mind that there were 6931 accidents within the workplace in Scotland reported to the HSE in 2014/15. While it is unrealistic to expect a prosecution in each case, it is surely not unreasonable to consider that prosecuting in around 1% of cases is not an appropriate level.

Fall in the number of enforcement notices being issued

The HSE have made it clear that they will need to focus on certain core industries. This limiting of resource is not a sustainable long term strategy.

The enforcement of employers’ liability insurance obligations also leaves much to be desired. Since 1972, it has been compulsory for employers to have liability insurance for their employees although this is frequently breached. However, in the last decade in Scotland, there have only been two prosecutions.

So what does this all mean?

The message is clear. We still have much to do, and there will continue to be a constant struggle against current government reforms, but we are far better off as part of the European Union, and not in the wilderness.

Read an extended discussion of workplace health and safety on International Workers Memorial Day from Digby Brown Partner Gordon Dalyell.