Local authorities in spotlight at HSE board meeting

HSE has looked into the possibility of a breakdown in the regulatory model it shares with local authorities, as financial pressures continue to curb LAs’ capacity to enforce health and safety.

Local authorities in Britain are responsible for enforcing health and safety in retail, wholesale distribution and warehousing, hotel and catering premises, offices, and the consumer/leisure industries. Although HSE does not enforce or inspect in these areas, it retains the policy lead for them, and provides support such as technical advice.

In the wake of reduced government funding, the number of pro-active inspections by LAs have fallen by 97 per cent between 2010 and 2016.

At the HSE board meeting on 5 December, papers reveal that HSE has been “horizon scanning” for what would happen if this downward trend continues.

“There may come a point,” says the paper, “at which LA(s) would no long meet the ‘adequate arrangements for enforcement’, duty under Section 18 of HSWA and set out within the Code.”

“If HSE took no action in such circumstances, we could expect this to result in a failure to enforce against those that flouted the law/caused harm. That could result in a loss of confidence in the GB health and safety system and escalation into a general lack of compliance, with resulting increases in harm and incidents.”

HSE is also concerned that it could be required to step in to the breach if LAs should fail. Papers say that 60 frontline inspectors would have to be appointed and resources to provide advice to small businesses in this case.

“The horizon scanning undertaken by HSE suggests that the financial and other restraints placed upon LAs pose a possible risk to the on-going operation of the existing LA/HSE coregulatory model. This would impact upon the GB regulatory system; and would require significant resources if HSE was required to replace the LA enforcement service,” it continues.

LA-enforced sectors like warehousing can have extremely high injury and ill-health rates. Photograph: iStock

In an apparent attempt to refocus minds among senior officials in local authorities, HSE has drafted a ‘statement of commitment’ that will be sent to councillors, LA chief executives and their heads of regulatory services. It reminds leaders that ‘LAs must target and prioritise regulatory resources to meet their legal duties.’

LA enforced sectors account for around 50 per cent of the workforce, but account for a smaller fraction of reported harm. Around 33 per cent of major or specified injuries and less than 10 per cent of work related fatalities occur in these sectors.

However, according to All-Party Parliamentary Group on Occupational Safety and Health’s 2018 report Local Authorities and health and safety, the figures are misleading: “Some LA-enforced sectors like warehousing can have extremely high injury and ill-health rates," it says. 

"Others, even if they have lower levels of injury, are often at higher risk of occupational diseases, such as stress in offices, musculoskeletal disorders in supermarkets or violence in pubs and clubs.”

The HSE board paper further says that failures in the management of health and safety in LA enforced business sectors result in around 10 deaths, 5000 major injuries and over 100,000 new cases of ill health a year. “Many of those harmed are members of the public/children, or vulnerable workers not provided with reasonable workplace protection.”