The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974, as the principal piece of legislation covering occupational health and safety in Great Britain, states that “employers have a duty to their employees to provide a safe-working environment in a ‘reasonably practicable’ manner…”
The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), along with local authorities (and other enforcing authorities) is responsible for enforcing the Act (and a number of other Acts). As a result of HSE subsequent investigations, prosecutions are brought against employers who fail in their statutory duty and may be liable to pay accident compensation for an injury claim made against them.
The long standing Act looks in danger of being compromised to the detriment of the many thousands of employees afforded a degree of protection and redress against company employers who fail to protect their workforce due to lack of proper training, risk assessment and maintaining a safe workplace and equipment.
The present coalition government propose to implement the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill which will “remove strict liability for certain health and safety breaches.” In March, the House of Lords moved to block the planned reforms and on the 16 April, debated a number of amendments to the reform bill.
During the debate, Business Minister, Jo Swinson, told the House of Commons “The Government doesn’t believe that it’s justifiable to hold employers liable for incidents outside of their control, which they could not have reasonably prevented.”
However, Middlesbrough MP Andy McDonald, pointed out that at present, there are 78,000 civil claims for injuries in the workplace every year, compared with around 1,000 health and safety prosecutions.
HSE figures also show how important the 1974 Act is to securing conviction and financial redress. Between 2011 and 2012, the HSE prosecuted 551 cases in England and Wales, an increase of 6 per cent on the previous year, securing 506 convictions (92 per cent), while 95 cases in England and Wales were prosecuted by Local authorities.
Prior to the debate, the Forum of Private Business claimed that removing the strict liability on employers would “allow employers to fulfil the basic requirements of health and safety law without worrying of potential, unforeseen claims against them.” The Forum also believed that the reforms would “recognise the lengths that businesses already go to in order to protect employees. After all, it is in their best interests to ensure a safe workplace.”
Yet the consistent level of figures show that across Britain there are far too many companies who neglect or wilfully fail to undertake their duties. Between, 2011 and 2012, there were 22,433 serious injuries and a total of 111,164 reported non-fatal injuries reported by the HSE, with the most common type of workplace accident still involves slips or trips ( 2 in 5 ), and falls from a height ( more than 1 in 5).
According to the Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna, “The beneficiaries of this will be providers of employers’ liability insurance. The losers will include taxpayers, because reduced compensation will reduce benefit recovery.”
The Commons voted against the Upper house amendments, proposing a further review of strict liability, “to draw up reasons as to why there is disagreement with the amendments", which will be reported to the House of Lords in a debate on 22 April.