A raft of changes to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) in the past year may be partially responsible for an increase in workplace accidents.

The HSE is a public body responsible for the encouragement, regulation and enforcement of workplace health, safety and welfare, with a self-proclaimed “mission to prevent death, injury and ill health in Great Britain’s workplaces”.

In addition to investigating complaints and workplace environments, the organisation conducts research into occupational risks in the UK.

However, a string of recent new stories have indicated that heavy workloads and less funding available to the HSE have led to a fall in standards in workplace safety, especially in certain industries.

Less funding

As part of the cuts set in motion in the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), the funding the HSE received from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) dropped from £169,981,000 to £161,239,000 in 2012/13.

Less funding means fewer staff and fewer investigations into workplace accidents and hazards.

According to a number of reports, the cash the HSE is set to receive from the government will fall by between £80mn and £85mn in 2014/15. It received £230mn in 2010.

Pushed to the limit

The decrease in government funding is leaving the HSE “increasingly overstretched” according to XpertHR.

An analysis of the HSE’s latest annual report by Howard Fidderman, Editor of the Health and Safety Bulletin, stated that while it is on track to deliver the coalition Government’s agenda, it appears “overstretched in too many directions, with – crucially – further deterioration in an already worrying inspection and investigation record”.

Fewer staff

The CSR reports reveal that the cuts in funding have resulted in a significant decline in staff numbers. The overall number of staff on 31 March 2013 was 105 less than the number recorded a year earlier.

Mr Fidderman added: “Particularly worrying is that front-line inspectors accounted for 58% of this drop.”

Fall in volume of followed-up complaints

Analyses of reports have uncovered a fall in the number of complaints being followed up by the HSE. The HSE received 11,975 complaints from workers and members of the public in 2010/11, which fell to 10,420 in 2011/12. The organisation “followed up” 10,000 cases in 2012/13, showing a steady decline throughout the years.

Mr Fidderman added that the 3,200 full-on investigations of RIDDOR* incidents undertaken by the HSE in 2012/13 was lower than in previous years, with 4,267 and 3,812 investigated in the two preceding years respectively.

This may be down to fewer staff following cuts in funding – or better workplace conditions.

*The Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013; the statutory obligation to report deaths, injuries, diseases and “dangerous occurrences” that take place at work or in connection with work.

Fee for Intervention Scheme deterring firms from seeking safety advice

The fall in complaints and investigations could also be attributed to the Fee for Intervention (FFI) scheme, which was launched back in October last year.

The scheme, which sees companies paying HSE Inspectors’ fees of up to £124-an-hour if they are found to be breaking safety laws, has sparked a fair amount of controversy since its launch.

While it has helped the HSE with income generation, raising £5.5mn in fines across all industries, there are concerns that firms are reluctant to consult the HSE for safety advice lest they inadvertently flag up an issue and are charged for the HSE’s time.

Leading safety consultancy The Building Safety Group has suggested that contractors are seeking advice elsewhere – or not at all – adding that calls to its own advice line have doubled since the Fee for Intervention was brought in.

Is the fee responsible for the increase in construction accidents?

Figures from the Building Safety Group also show a 13% rise in the number of accidents between August and October, compared to the same time last year.

Construction is one of the most dangerous UK workplaces – but are Fees for Intervention exacerbating the problem?

Managing Director Paul Kimpton, said: “The rise in accidents occurring in the last three months compared to the same quarter last year is very worrying; how much of the rise is due to companies now being worried to ask HSE for advice in the way they used to can only be guessed at but it is bound to be having an impact.

“The worry is that for those who are not a member of an organisation and who therefore may not have access to a helpline; the accident figures may be even higher.”

Further concern for the construction industry

The construction industry currently employs 5% of employees in the UK – but 22% of fatal industrial injuries occur in this sector along with 10% of reported major injuries.

Further to this, 5,000 occupational cancer cases are estimated to arise due to exposure to asbestos.

Mr Kimpton added: “In an industry such as construction where the risk of accident is so high if the correct safety measures are not put in place, it is vital that every firm has access to an impartial health and safety advice line as this will have a very real impact on the safety of employees, sub-contractors and everyone in contact with a site.”

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