What will this election change about health and safety?

  • Health & Safety
health and safety
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Peninsula Team, Peninsula Team

(Last updated )

Looking at the parties’ manifestos in this election, the overall impression of their commitment to health and safety at work is…underwhelming. The kindest thing you could say about the main parties’ plans for health and safety is that mental health is finally getting national, cross-party recognition.

Violence against retail workers gets a name-check in the Labour and Conservative manifestos, and there are rumblings about changes to employment laws around zero hours and gig-economy workers, to bring the UK into the modern world of work.

So there’s recognition of some aspects of health and safety in the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos. Recognition, and little else. There are vague promises about ‘modernising’ or ‘updating’ health and safety regulations, without much elaboration on what modernisation means. It’s such a subjective term that it fails to explain the direction of travel for health and safety at work.

The UK faces a lot of pressing issues, with poor access to healthcare and food banks on the rise as families struggle to make ends meet. Manifestos have largely chosen to focus on improving healthcare and the economy, charting their various paths to recovery and growth.

Health and safety would seem like it’s at the bottom of the list for a reason – there are plenty of other things to worry about right now.

Are there any changes to health and safety laws proposed by the parties for the General Election 2024?

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Is that true, though? According to Health and Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, 1.8 million people last year reported they were suffering from work-related ill health, around half of them saying they had stress, depression or anxiety.

Those same statistics estimate that the UK lost 35.2 million working days in the same period because of work-related ill-health or injury.

All this loss of working time, and all these injuries and health conditions put a huge financial burden on businesses, workers, and health services. HSE estimates from 2021-22 put the cost of workplace injury and new cases of work-related ill health at £20.7 billion. That’s 10% more than the same costs in 2019-20.

£20 billion taken out of the UK economy is a huge hit – it’s money that could be spent on a long list of things called for in these manifestos. 1.8 million people unable to work because of ill-health puts immense pressure on health services to care for them. The NHS, which all parties have said needs urgent reform and investment, could perform a lot better if the cause of all that work-related ill-health was addressed.

Health and safety is intrinsically tied to the economy and healthcare. The majority of people in the UK work, and are exposed to risks at work. If we fail to look seriously at how to improve health and safety at work and make a difference to working peoples’ lives, we’re missing a key piece of the puzzle.

50 years ago, an in-depth look at the state of the UK’s incoherent and poorly-applied legislation brought about a massive shift in how we regulate and enforce health and safety at work.

In half a century, the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 has changed the way we think about work. On average, it’s estimated that around 600 people a year used to die in work-related accidents before 1974. Last year, it was 135. That’s a massive improvement, but is it far enough? Should any preventable work-related death be acceptable?

Bringing mental health into focus is important. Mental health should be on a par with physical health, and the UK desperately needs investment and support for services to turn the current situation around.

However, political parties need to think bigger. Health and safety at work doesn’t just affect people in high-risk sectors like construction or agriculture. Those numbers aren’t going away any time soon: £20 billion lost from the economy, and 1.8 million people who couldn’t go to work because their work made them ill.

Health and safety regulation needs a rethink. UK health and safety legislation is a world leader, but we cannot lead without bold action. The HSE has lost 45% of its budget in real cash terms since 2010. A regulator can’t enforce the law without resources to train and allocate inspectors across the country.

Last year, the Government’s ‘Retained EU Law’ bill nearly saw key health and safety regulations tossed out with over 600 other EU laws, with no realistic plan in place to reinstate them. But for the actions of key industry bodies and influential public figures, we might have been left with workers exposed to dangerous risks and regulators powerless to bring offenders to justice.

Now we see the same proposal to “keep on removing EU laws from our statute book” in the Conservative and Reform manifestos, and only vague commitments from Labour and the Liberal Democrats to improve current legislation.

The economy needs workers to come home safe and healthy and keep contributing their labour. Healthcare services might not be able to take further increases in work-related illnesses and injuries, which is plausible if we carry on the current trajectory.

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