The right balance

Although the Prime Minister is known to employ the phrase ‘let me be perfectly clear’, that is one aspect of Brexit that hasn’t yet been realised.

The implications for everything, from the complex supply chains in car manufacturing or aerospace, to the food standards we may adopt to smooth a trade deal with the USA, are frequently discussed, but what we have is speculation and uncertainty. But the Government is able to distinguish between general aspirations and red lines, and perhaps we can do the same with health and safety.

Whenever our arrangements have been reviewed, for example, by Professor Löfstedt in 2011 in his report Reclaiming health and safety for all the conclusion has been that we need to have a framework of safeguards and not a free-for-all; effectively we seem to prefer rules to anarchy in the workplace.

But rules only work if they are fair and fairly enforced – so although most of us shop online, there was a sense of injustice about taxation as it impacts differently on high street shops and on out-of-town warehouses run by organisations like Amazon. 

We want, and most of us feel that, our health and safety ‘rules of the road’ strike the right balance in protecting people from harm while allowing enterprise and hard work to reap rewards. Why wouldn’t anyone, trying to protect their people and their organisation from significant risk, want to periodically review the risk assessments and the precautions they are taking, to make sure that they are effective and proportionate?

Whatever changes Brexit heralds, we know that what matters is keeping that balance between severe constraint, a sort of North Korea of rules and ways of behaving, and a chaotic ‘do whatever you want’. 

We weren’t just the first nation to develop the industrial revolution, we were the first to create the rulebook for healthy and safe working in the new factories. The politicians who are courting deregulatory lobbyists in the USA, people like Liam Fox, Liz Truss, Boris Johnson and Owen Paterson, are not really representing the views of most of us: we want Britain to thrive in the new arrangements being negotiated, but are also very proud of what our approach to workplace health and safety has achieved.

Good rules, effectively enforced and underpinned by continually seeking fairness for everyone are what the UK’s health and safety arrangements mean to most of us, and we don’t see why that should be put at risk.

Enforcement is an important part of this, because with most of us trying to ‘do the right thing’ we naturally are very resentful when others cut corners to gain an advantage. We don’t like it when restaurants keep the waiters’ tips, adding them to the bill and paid on a credit card. We don’t like it when someone drives a poorly maintained, untaxed and uninsured car.

The safeguards against bad behaviour don’t only need to be in place for those of us who see the light and behave well, there are some who break the rules and who need to feel the heat. Maintaining our rulebook, our legal framework for health and safety, isn’t sufficient if the ability of HSE and local authorities to enforce those rules continues to be eroded by savage cuts in their resources. 

The HSE, for example, is being drawn into issues of fracking risks, of building cladding installations and who knows what the next requirement will be – this shouldn’t be at the expense of inspectors visiting workplaces and checking that they all meet the standards required.

Whatever the Brexit settlement, we need to scrutinise the detail to make sure that Britain maintains the right balance in health and safety. There can be change and development of course, perhaps eyesight tests for display screen users don’t make a lot of sense, and flammable cladding panels should be ‘unlicensed’. But overall, every scrutiny has indicated that our approach in Britain is not only fit-for-purpose but a great world exemplar borne out by the statistics showing a real fall over the years in accidents at work, and now being employed to achieve the same for ill health. 

Our vision of no one being injured in an accident or made ill through their work, of enhancing their wellbeing, can best be realised if we hold on to our pride in British health and safety standards. Those standards will enable us to make the best of the post-Brexit world.

Lawrence Waterman OBE is chair of the board of trustees at the British Safety Council