UK: Occupational Hazard? - Health And Safety Executive Announces Fewer Checks

Last Updated: 20 November 2012
Article by Peter Jones

The Health and Safety Executive will be carrying out fewer routine checks on employers from April 2013.  Peter Jones from our Employment Team explains some of the risks associated with letting health and safety at work take a back seats.

The Government has recently announced that from April 2013 it is to exempt thousands of UK businesses from what it calls "burdensome" health and safety inspections. Implementation will follow a formal consultation exercise, but it is not expected that this will substantially change the current plans.

Shops, offices, pubs and clubs that are considered low risk will no longer be routinely inspected by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Conversely, high risk operations, such as construction and food production will still be scrutinised, as will organisations where there has been a reported accident or a record of poor health and safety performance.

The Government is also proposing legislation to limit the liability of businesses to those that can be proven to have acted negligently, rather than the currently low hurdle of automatic liability arising from a breach of statutory health and safety duties.

The CBI has welcomed the proposals, but the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has indicated concern, on the basis that the current laws are being misinterpreted, two recent Government reviews have indicated that the law is broadly fit for purpose and that public views are distorted by overly aggressive marketing by personal injury law firms.

What does this mean for employers?

The danger with this development is that it will send a message to employers that maintaining health and safety standards is a lower priority, as there is less risk of being caught and removal of strict liability and civil penalties for failure to comply. However, legal health and safety standards will not change per se and the requirement for risk assessment and the need to show appropriate preventative steps will remain.

While health and safety may always be something of a tick box exercise in practice, this is not to suggest that it is any less effective for it. Health and safety risk assessments can be useful processes that highlight routine risks, where standards have slipped or where unforeseen risks have arisen without proper consideration or supervision.

In the employment field, stress risk assessments can often be an effective tool for organisations faced with employees on sick leave who present the ubiquitous 'workplace stress' diagnosis. If the reasons for absence really are unreasonably high levels of stress and these can be controlled or mitigated through well-informed management intervention, it is both legally and practically advisable to do so without delay. It demonstrates to absent employees that measures are being taken to resolve the issues, avoiding the potential for escalating disputes. On the other hand, if an employee is thought to be malingering or presenting personal issues to their GP as workplace ones, a health and safety risk assessment is likely to highlight this possibility, in turn indicating the usefulness of an early occupational health report on which to base a management response.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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