Employers are increasingly unlikely to be punished after workplace accidents, as figures have shown the number of investigations dropped by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has soared.
Trade union Prospect compiled figures showing 389 ‘mandatory investigations’ were not undertaken in the 2021-22 period, due to a lack of resources. This contrasts sharply with just 2 dropped investigations in 2016-17.
Mandatory investigations are triggered when a work-related accident is reported that results in a person’s death, or injuries such as permanent blindness or serious multiple fractures.
HSE specify five reasons why an incident like this would not be investigated, including where it is “impractical” due to missing key evidence, where there is no reasonable way to avoid a recurrence, or due to “inadequate resources”.
Prospect reported that severe funding cuts and a drop in staff numbers at HSE contributed significantly to depleting their resources to investigate accidents. They said HSE had struggled to recruit and retain key positions like inspectors, policy officials and scientific staff.
They added that many senior HSE staff were seriously concerned that the organisation has “shrunk below the critical mass to be an effective regulator”.
Staffing levels have nearly halved, from 4,200 staff in 2003 to 2,400 in 2022. Government funding has also fallen more than 44%, from £228m in 2010 to £126m in 2019.
HSE does operate a fee for intervention (FFI) scheme, which has contributed to their cost recovery. They also recoup fees from successful prosecution. Last year, they recovered £90m in additional funding from these sources.
A spokesperson for HSE said: “We generate a substantial income on top of our government funding, which helps pay for our regulatory work. Our staffing levels have changed as our responsibilities have changed. We are currently seeing significant recruitment into HSE.”
Mike Clancy, General Secretary at Prospect, said the number of investigations dropped “should worry anyone who values safety at work.” He added:
“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.”
Angela Rayner, Deputy Leader of the Labour party and shadow secretary for the future of work, said legal workplace protections “must go hand in hand with effective enforcement of the rules” and were sensible for workers and businesses.
She added: “13 years of failed Conservative government has left the UK’s health and safety enforcement regime badly overstretched, and that is putting working people at risk.”
The HSE spokesperson said it had an “excellent reputation, shown by our growing responsibilities, which include post-Brexit chemical regulations and the creation of the new building safety regulator”.
They also pointed to a recent rise in proactive investigations – from 14,880 in 2020-21 to 16,900 in 2021-22.
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