GRAVE ERRORS | Record numbers harmed by work Don’t tell us this is a success story
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- December 26, 2022
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Hazards, number 160, 2022
GRAVE ERRORS | Record numbers harmed – don’t tell us this is a success story
Multimillionaire prime minister Rishi Sunak wants to dismantle the safety and employment laws protecting you. Top multinationals just ignore these laws anyway. And Britain just bagged the worst boss in the world award. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill warns an unprecedented workplace health crisis is set to get much, much worse.
We are in the depths of a workplace health and safety recession.
Figures released by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) on 23 November 2022 reveal the number of workers in Great Britain suffering work-related ill-health has increased again to a new all-time high. Workers reporting work-related ill-health hit 1.8 million in 2021/22, up from 1.7 million in 2020/21.
The workforce is enduring the highest ever levels of work-related stress, anxiety and depression. Deaths from the asbestos cancer mesothelioma remain above 2,500 a year, a global high.
The safety regulator said 8 million working days were lost due to work-related ill health and non-fatal workplace injuries in 2021/22. The figures also show that 123 workers were killed in work-related ‘accidents’ in 2021/22 and a further 565,000 workers sustained a reported non-fatal injury.
Of the approaching 2 million suffering work-related ill-health, an estimated 585,000 reported their condition was caused or made worse by the effects of the pandemic, HSE said. The top line figure is now almost 40 per cent higher than when the Tories came to power in 2010, when the toll stood at 1.3 million cases.
Attempting to put a healthy gloss on the bad news, HSE chief executive Sarah Albon said: “Britain is one of the safest places in the world to work but we need all employers to do more and take seriously their responsibilities to support good mental health at work.”
It is true British workers are nowhere near as likely to fall victim to a workplace fatality as they were when a much higher proportion of the workforce was in the dirty, difficult and dangerous manual jobs.
But many more are now dying a slower death, with previously unheard of numbers falling victim to the diseases of the 21st century workplace, including cardiovascular disease and suicide (See: Death wish: Pressure grows on HSE to act on work-related suicide risks). They die just as surely, just frequently enduring years of disability, pain and hardship on their way to the grave.
With OECD’s 22 November 2022 Confronting the crisis report warning the UK has the worst economic outlook of any advanced nation other than sanctions-hit Russia, the situation is set to get quickly worse. There’s already worrying evidence workers in the UK are so anxious about the cost of living crisis it is affecting their wellbeing and performance at work.
Chartered Management Institute (CMI) survey findings published in December 2022 revealed two-thirds of managers are reporting issues such as rising absenteeism and lack of engagement among stressed-out staff. In CMI’s survey of more than 1,000 managers and team leaders, 71 per cent said they had seen evidence of the crisis increasing stress and anxiety in their teams, with two-thirds (66 per cent) of all the managers surveyed reporting it was adversely affecting employees’ productivity as well.
“As an organisation, you can’t just treat it as a bottom-line issue,” CMI’s director of policy, Anthony Painter, said. “It is a wellbeing and productivity issue as well.”
TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said the findings are no surprise. “Working families across Britain are worried sick about how they are going to pay their bills and put food on the table. This isn’t something you can just switch off,” she said. “If we want to have healthy, thriving workforces, people need to be able to make a decent living.”
Instead of tackling a serious and set to worsen workplace health crisis, the UK government has embarked on an unprecedented assault on workplace rights.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), the UK safety professionals’ body, has warned against plans introduced by former prime minister Liz Truss to widen safety exemptions which now apply to the smallest of businesses to those up to 500 employees, to “free” 40,000 businesses from “future bureaucracy”.
In a 10 November 2022 letter to current prime minister Rishi Sunak, IOSH chief executive Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher said there is “an opportunity to make an early, bold step in the right direction” by scrapping the move. IOSH makes it clear in the letter that exempting more businesses would be a “backward step”, adding “it risks increasing costs (direct and indirect) from occupational injuries, ill-health and damages that will inhibit growth in the long term.”
AMAZON EXPOSED The world’s largest retailer has been criticised for ‘misleading’ MPs over worker monitoring. Giving evidence to a Business Select Committee Brian Palmer, Amazon’s policy chief for Europe, repeatedly said surveillance of workers was not the ‘primary focus’ of their monitoring systems – but then conceded it did monitor worker performance. See: Amazon ‘misled’ MPs over worker monitoring.
Highlighting the significant progress in UK occupational health and safety standards over the past half century, Harwood-Whitcher noted this has now stalled, adding a failure to reverse the decision could lead to “a race to the bottom that disadvantages everyone.”
Recent evidence and current government plans suggest this is a warning that will go unheeded. In a legal change already introduced in 2022, workers taking strike action over issues including safety disputes can now be replaced by agency – scab – labour. Unions were given the go ahead by the High Court on 14 December 2022 to bring a legal challenge to the law.
Forthcoming legislation which seeks to stipulate ‘minimum service levels’ in what the government determines are ‘critical’ jobs – like health care and transport – could be extended and applied to more sectors. It would further restrict the right to strike against safety and other employment abuses.
UNCERTAIN FUTURE UK businesses must take better care of their workforce, or risk greater uncertainty, safety professionals’ organisation IOSH has warned. It said new research commissioned by IOSH ‘paints a gloomy picture’ of the UK workplace as a demotivated world of insecurity and weak identity, dogged by a prevailing sense of workers being undervalued. See: Businesses must take better care of workers.
And in a move described as ‘reckless’ by legal experts, the entire body of EU derived laws – among them almost all modern UK workplace safety regulations, including the safety management, asbestos, manual handling, personal protective equipment, chemical, biological, physical and display screen hazards and other rules – are on a government’s hit list.
In total, 58 work safety laws are on the government’s ‘dashboard’ of around 4,000 EU-derived laws targeted under the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022, published on 22 September 2022. It provides for all these EU laws to be ‘sunset’ on 31 December 2023, without consultation with either the public or parliament, unless given an explicit reprieve by ministers.
It is part of a pattern of behaviour pandering to the Tory’s libertarian right-wing and rogue businesses, which on 21 November 2022 saw a British business leader, P&O CEO Peter Hebblethwaite, named ‘The World’s Worst Boss’ in a global poll.
Responsible business groups, however, have joined unions, human resources, environmental, civil society and legal groups in opposition to the cull, warning “vital protections” are at risk. In a 24 November 2022 joint letter, groups including the TUC and the Institute of Directors (IoD) called on ministers to withdraw the retained EU law bill.
TWITTER SHOCK After Elon Musk fired half the company’s staff immediately after his buyout of Twitter, he swiftly set about locking out the survivors on 18 November 2022. There were rumours of a staff exodus at the social media giant after Musk demanded workers sign up for “long hours at high intensity” or leave. In an email to staff, Musk said those who had not signed up within two days would be fired. Twitter staff had to commit to working long hours and would “need to be extremely hardcore” or leave the company, he said. Musk’s ultimatum got an immediate reaction, with employees tweeting using the hashtag #LoveWhereYouWorked and a saluting emoji to show they were leaving the firm. Prospect, the union representing Twitter’s UK staff, said it now has “dozens” of Twitter UK staff members on its books after the announcement.
The letter, which was addressed to business secretary Grant Shapps, said: “The bill would automatically sweep away thousands of pieces of legislation and established legal principles.” The groups warned that the bill could endanger important worker, consumer and environmental rights derived from EU law, including holiday pay, safe working hours and protection from discrimination.
Their letter also warned that scrapping the laws could put the UK “in breach” of the trade deal with the EU, which could in turn lead to additional tariffs that will negatively impact UK exporters. “Making these changes will prove costly and bureaucratic and would undermine the certainty and stability workers and businesses need if the economy is to prosper,” the letter noted.
In addition to IoD and TUC, signatories included human resources body the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the Employment Lawyers Association, Greener UK, Wildlife and Countryside Link and the Civil Society Alliance.
A high risk strategy
It might not be just workers and the environment that suffer if the Tories axe EU laws. The Conservative government will face a “significant” voter backlash, including losing all ‘red wall seats’ and those of many of the Tory party’s ‘big beasts’, the TUC said, if it follows through on plans to rip up workplace protections.
The warning came on 17 October 2022, as the union body published data from its poll, conducted by Opinium, which revealed whopping nationwide and cross-party support for protecting EU-derived workers’ rights. The TUC says ministers have effectively “set off a ticking time bomb” on hard-won workers’ rights.
The UK’s regulatory system is already under serious strain. The Commons public accounts committee has warned government regulators including the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) do not have the necessary staff and skills to protect workers and the public from risks. In the committee’s 20 October 2022 report, MPs warned the regulators are “struggling to recruit and retain the skills they need to regulate effectively” amid growing demand following Britain’s exit from the EU.
Chemical safety is a case in point, an area of workplace safety regulation the committee found was in disarray. HSE has been tasked with operating an independent post-Brexit regulatory chemical safety regime, replacing a sophisticated EU system for setting workplace exposure limits, regulations and regulatory systems. But the committee identified serious organisational and financial barriers to it proceeding.
Its report noted: “HSE no longer has access to the chemical safety data underpinning the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) regulations. Industry has estimated it will cost £800 million to replicate this data in the UK REACH system. The regulators are taking action to mitigate these issues, but in some instances the alternatives are more time consuming and are likely to increase costs over time.”
For the UK to take on a process for setting workplace exposure standards for chemicals won’t only be costly, it will be highly problematic. It will be starting from scratch – the last relicts of a workable system have long been dismantled.
In 2015, HSE abolished its Advisory Committee on Toxic Substances (ACTS), one of the last survivors of a committee system that allowed experts, industry and unions to cooperatively oversee workplace safety standards. Instead, the UK relied on the well-resourced EU system, which has a specialist chemicals agency, ECHA, and several consultative tiers with active contributions from industry and unions.
That’s no longer an option for the UK. Instead HSE proposes a very different approach, focused more on raising awareness than raising standards.
A 5 December 2022 HSE ebulletin outlined the new process, which signalled a shift away from binding standards to “a more blended approach to exposure controls as directed by the evidence. This may include sector specific interventions such as awareness-raising, embedding knowledge, education, and guidance.”
It said where there is evidence to justify a new or revised workplace exposure limit (WEL) for a substance, “HSE will follow the GB methodology approach.” This will include an ‘economic assessment’, so cost and not just risk will be a defining consideration in deciding the level of protection introduced.
There will be a public consultation on any updates, HSE said, but one prominent trade union safety specialist expressed scepticism, telling Hazards “that’s going to be a tick box exercise, with HSE board lacking adequate trade union representation and any official consultation with trade unions.”
HSE says its “Workplace Expert Health Committee (WHEC) will act as independent experts to review the scientific basis for any WEL proposed.” Whether WHEC has relevant skills across its membership to do the job is questionable.
Whereas under the old abandoned UK system, which involved two panels – WATCH and ACTS – made up of industry, union and expert members familiar with chemicals use in the workplace, WHEC is not a committee dedicated to chemical issues.
Of WHEC’s nine members, two-thirds do not have relevant expertise or experience. Three are experts in psychosocial hazards, one is an ergonomist, two are occupational medics without standards setting and chemicals expertise and just three – John Cherrie, Len Levy and Martie van Tongeren – have relevant expertise.
Unions, representing the workers that get sick or die when safety rules are ignored, weakened or removed, are increasingly excluded from all of HSE’s processes.
HSE’s board through 2022 operated for the first time in its history without a TUC board member and no expectation one would be appointed. An ‘employees’ representative’ seat normally reserved for the TUC was given by the DWP minister to someone with no recent role in any union body, with TUC incoming general secretary, Paul Nowak, denied the role when the post was initially advertised, then again when it was readvertised on the minister’s instruction.
Top Tory MPs could lose their seats and the government its majority if its deregulatory fetish continues unabated.
But for workers it is more serious than that. They could lose their lives.
Amazon ‘misled’ MPs over worker monitoring
Amazon, the world’s largest retailer, has been criticised for ‘misleading’ MPs over worker monitoring. Giving evidence to a Business Select Committee on 15 November 2022, Brian Palmer, Amazon’s policy chief for Europe, repeatedly said surveillance of workers was not the ‘primary focus’ of their monitoring systems.
But committee chair Darren Jones MP asked Palmer, the Amazon head of public policy for Europe, why an older constituent was let go by the company after “the system said he wasn’t being productive enough.” The MP continued: “Do you track the productivity of your workers in the warehouses? Yes or No?” Mr Palmer responded: “Yes”.
GMB head of research Laurence Turner commented: “Amazon’s attempt to convince MPs that its aggressive monitoring was mainly used to track goods, ultimately Mr Palmer was forced to admit it is, in fact, used to track staff.”
Turner added: “GMB members in Amazon have said for years that constant monitoring and punishing targets are leading to injuries and making many lives a misery. Now the company has finally admitted the problem, it’s time to address it. But they can’t do this on their own. It’s time for the company to get round the table with GMB union so we can work together to make Amazon a safe and happy place to work.”
Amazon founder and executive chair Jeff Bezos took second place in November 2022 in a global poll for the world’s worst boss, pipped only by P&O’s Peter Hebblethwaite.
Businesses must take better care of workers
UK businesses must take better care of their workforce, or risk greater uncertainty, safety professionals’ organisation IOSH has warned. It said new research commissioned by IOSH ‘paints a gloomy picture’ of the UK workplace as a demotivated world of insecurity and weak identity, dogged by a prevailing sense of workers being undervalued.
IOSH findings published on 1 December 2022 revealed nearly half of respondents don’t believe their employer has their health and safety in mind, while four in ten don’t agree their work is supportive of their physical and mental wellbeing. At a time when many are feeling the pinch of the cost-of-living crisis, a quarter of employees don’t believe their job is secure, with only a third saying their employer would support them if their job were under threat.
IOSH said the figures are “a huge wake-up call” for bosses. IOSH head of safety Ruth Wilkinson said: “Businesses need to ensure they are putting their people first and they need to be seen to be doing so. Clearly, many workers don’t believe this is happening in their roles. And there is a clear correlation between employees feeling they aren’t looked after at work and them not giving their best or feeling loyalty toward their employers.”
IOSH said it launched its Catch the Wave campaign in 2021 to demonstrate the link between social sustainability and occupational safety and health. It called on business to put people alongside planet and profit, citing the fact there is more scrutiny than ever on how they treat workers.
“In this period of major uncertainty, now is the time for employers to step up and demonstrate that looking after their workers is key to their business, showing they value them and the work they do. Failure to do so will have a significant impact on how sustainable a business is,” Wilkinson said.
“Organisations cannot be sustained in the current world of work without committing to protecting the safety, health and wellbeing of their most vital resource: their workers. Socially sustainable organisations are those that recognise the value of their workers, treat them as an asset and invest in them.”