In a rather odd turn of events, the very organisation that is responsible for ensuring the safety standards at British workplaces is planning to cut the regulations that help to make British docks a safer place for its dockworkers to work in.
The plans are part of an effort by the current Coalition government to streamline safety regulations throughout the country’s workplaces. Government spokesmen have stated that it is their intention to cut “unnecessary” red tape and make it easier for businesses to make a profit. The strategy is not at this stage very coherent and is contentious enough within the coalition itself with Lib Dems and Conservatives at odds with each other over the extent of the cuts to safety regulations.
Opposed to the reduction in safety measures are the trade unions and representatives of the personal injury sector, whose solicitors often have to represent workers when they suffer from accidents in the workplace which are due to poor safety conditions.
The APIL (Association of Personal Injury Lawyers) president, Karl Tonks, who is a practicing personal injury solicitor himself, specialising in employment liability and workplace accident claims, says that docks really do not need this sort of reduction in safety regulations. Workers at the docks, he comments, have an accident rate about five times the national workplace average.
Mr Tonks says that the planned axing of rules which are specific to dock safety could have “tragic consequences”.
The HSE is planning to replace specific safety rules with a system of “guidance”, which is basically a voluntary system which the employer – in this case the dockyard- can implement if they wish to do so or choose to ignore. One of the safety measures which will disappear is the mandatory use of ladders around the docks. These are put in place to allow dockers to be able to get out of the sea if they fall in by accident.
The HSE believes that safety measures at the docks do not need to be any different from the average construction site, but Mr Tonks thinks otherwise. He says that the HSE should stop and consider the reasons why workplace specific legislation was introduced in the first place.
Whatever the politics behind the present government’s desire to cut red tape, the fact is that Britain’s workplaces have steadily become safer over the last few decades as safety regulations and health and safety inspections have been tightened. The number of accidents at work has been estimated on the HSE’s own figures to have steadily declined by about three percent every year for the last twenty years.
Despite the overall trend, there are still about 600,000 workplace related accidents every year in this country and 1,000,000 people at some time or another suffer from workplace related illnesses which are both physical and stress related. The cost to the economy of all these accidents and illnesses is enormous and it seems counterproductive and not economic sense for the government to embark on a strategy which is going to see the cost of workplace injuries and illnesses start to rise again.