Some might have thought the UK’s new coalition government would have other things than health and safety to worry about when it came to power in 2010; global recession, Eurozone crisis, and rising unemployment to name but a few. Yet it has shown extraordinary zeal in its determination to sort out what it considered was wrong with UK health and safety legislation and its application. First out of the blocks was Lord Young’s review, followed by the more authoritative Lofstedt report published six months ago. Add to that the attention of the wider government ‘red tape challenge’ and the Health and Safety Executive’s own reforms and it is easy to believe that the last two years has been a turbulent time to be a policymaker in this area.
To its credit the government has maintained a pretty transparent view of how these various reviews and initiatives have come together and, aside from the usual headlining grabbing press briefings from ministers, seems to be making good progress. The latest progress report identifies that 18 of the Lofstedt reports 35 recommendations have now been implemented, with the remainder apparently on track to be completed within the original timescales. A number of these require changes in primary legislation, not least the key recommendation to remove self-employed workers in low hazard environments from health and safety legislation. This will require significant modification of section 3 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act that sets out ‘general duties of employers and self-employed to persons other than their employees.’ It will be interesting to see whether, amongst its other priorities, the government can find the parliamentary time and political appetite to see this through, especially given the complexities of drafting such a change and then enforcing it.
Other less complex and controversial changes appear to be progressing nicely. The report claims the government is on track to meet its target of 50% of regulations being ‘reviewed, scrapped or improved’ by 2014. By way of example the review of the CDM regulations that govern construction activity is underway with the aim of ‘ensuring there is clearer expression of duties, reduction in bureaucracy and appropriate guidance for small projects’. New guidance for businesses on portable appliance testing has been published resulting in 22,000 downloads in its first month. Accident reporting has been ‘relaxed’, although I have previously blogged about the dubious nature of benefits to business of this, and we are promised consultation on further changes to RIDDOR this summer. At the softer end the HSE has been working hard to clarify the legal requirements of working at heights, particularly the myths around ladder use, and has a programme underway to help businesses better understand the concept of ‘reasonably practicable’ that forms the bedrock of UK health and safety legislation.
Progress also seems to be being made on improving the working relationship between the HSE and local authorities, who are responsible for enforcing health and safety legislation in low risk premises. Consultation will begin in September on a National Code enabling the HSE to more closely guide enforcement and inspection activity with a planned launch date of April 2013. My only bug bear is the continued championing of the Myth Busters Challenge Panel as some kind of serious health and safety initiative, rather than the populist counter-headline-insurgency device I suspect it really is.