Health and safety regulation gets a bad press. Businesses complain about the burden it places upon them, and Prime Minister David Cameron talks about organisations working under a ‘culture of fear’. As ever, it’s all the lawyers’ fault, with employers fearing legal costs, rather than prosecution.
It’s always worth taking a wider view here. Do we have a problem? Do we need all this health and safety legislation? Well the 24,600 people who suffered a major injury at work last year would probably argue that we do. As would the 171 people who died. Levels of injury and death have generally improved over the last 40 years, thanks to the strong regulation that we see. However, in the last year the number of deaths and injuries increased in some areas. I fear that unpicking health and safety legislation could see a return to the old days where injuries at work were more commonplace. To me, 171 deaths at work is 171 too many. Cost savings should not take priority over people’s lives.
True, our working lives are safer now as many of the more dangerous industries (such as mining) are in decline or have all but disappeared. However, the hazards of the construction industry remain, along with agriculture and waste disposal. Industry often links health and safety with paperwork, rather than properly understanding risk assessment and the need to tackle real dangers in the workplace.
Where people have been injured at work, through an act or omission of the employer, they may be entitled to make a claim. Fortunately, insurance is compulsory for employers in the United Kingdom, and so employees are able to seek compensation for their injuries. This is important, as many employers provide only limited sick pay and injured employees risk financial hardship if they are unable to work. Employees working in the most hazardous industries are often the lowest paid, with the poorest terms and conditions.
So what of proposed cost cutting? The concern appears to be about the legal fees attached to a justified claim, and how they can be reduced. David Cameron suggests fixing lawyers’ fees may be a way forward - indeed this already happens in some areas of the law such as low value road traffic claims. However, what makes the biggest difference to the cost is good behaviour on both sides of the claim, with the organisation and the injured person treating it as an investigation into finding the right answer, not a fight. In far too many cases the employer (or the employer’s insurer) resists the justified claim strongly, refusing to admit liability, leaving the injured person and his lawyer no alternative but to take the case all the way to court to gain settlement. This drives the costs up enormously. The cases you read about in the papers are the court cases, the ones where the employer has refused to settle the case before it goes all the way to court and, as such, the costs seem disproportionately high. Admitting mistakes early and taking responsibility for your actions is what really saves money.