'Negligent' employers not being inspected due to HSE funding cuts, union warns

Inspection cancellations soar amid "staffing and skills crisis" after 43% real-terms funding cuts
HSE conducts mandatory inspections after work-related accidents. Photo: Esther Max/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Employers are increasingly likely to go uninvestigated after a work-related accident because funding cuts at the Health and Safety Executive mean visits are being cancelled, a union has warned.

The number of mandatory investigations by the regulator – which follow a workplace accident that leads to someone’s death or a serious injury –  that did not go ahead because of insufficient resources soared to 389 in 2021-22, up from just two five years earlier.

The warning comes in a report warning that the level of mandatory investigations that are not going ahead is at an “all time high”.

Prospect, which compiled the figures, said the 200-fold rise was down to cuts that it said had left the regulator with a “staffing and skills crisis that will be difficult to overcome”. 

Cash funding for HSE fell between 2010-22 and 2019-20, from £228m to £126m. In the three years since, this figure has risen to £185m – which the union calculated amounts to a 43% real-terms cut once ringfenced payments are taken into account.

Meanwhile, staff numbers have shrunk significantly in the last two decades – from 4,200 in 2003, to 3,700 in 2010 to around 2,700 now. However, Prospect estimates the reduction in like-for-like staff numbers is more stark, as today’s figure includes “growth areas” including the Chemical Regulations Division.

Real-terms pay has also fallen, with the union estimating that many staff have seen their wages fall by between 20% and 25%.

The number of inspectors working for the regulator has plummeted by 41% in the last two decades, the report found.

The report said as a “direct consequence" of the decline of inspectors and the record numbers of mandatory investigations routinely cancelled, “only fatal accidents have any degree of certainty of follow-up”.

“The public has a reasonable expectation that if they or their loved ones are seriously injured at work, then an investigation will take place and negligent employers be held to account. That this is no longer happening is a shocking failure to secure justice, and a failure that can only get worse unless the decline in inspector numbers is reversed,” it said.

There are a number of reasons aside from resourcing issues that investigations can be cancelled, including if they are considered impractical or the employer has already taken “all reasonably practical measures” to address the problem.

The number of “impractical” investigations more than rose from 35 in 2015-16 to 88 in 2021-22 – while those marked “all reasonably practical measures taken” rose from 281 to 16,381.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said: “The bottom line is that if effective investigations cannot be carried out then those who are at fault for an accident may get away with it, depriving victims of justice and making workplaces less safe.

“This is a problem that is mirrored across the public sector and in regulators in particular: Insufficient pay, too much work, and the loss of key skills to the better-paying private sector. It’s time for government to wake up – this is something that will only get worse unless they do something urgently.”

An HSE spokesperson said the regulator has an “excellent reputation, shown by our growing responsibilities, which include post-Brexit chemical regulations and the creation of the new building safety regulator” and that Britain is “one of the safest places to work in the world”.

“We generate a substantial income on top of our government funding, which helps pay for our regulatory work. Our staffing levels have changed as our responsibilities have changed. We are currently seeing significant recruitment into HSE,” they added.

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