Are Government Cuts Causing Injuries? Removal of strict liability and effects on Health and Safety

A review of the government’s plans to change the laws that govern health and safety in the workplace.

The majority of employers are certainly tightening their belts in the current economic climate; however, are employers cutting corners when it comes to health and safety?

Following the release of the report by Professor Löfstedt providing an independent review of health and safety legislation, the Government has implemented new legislation within the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill 2013 which aims to “cut the red tape” and “end the unfairness” to companies working under the current health and safety legislation.

The government has resolved to remove what is called ‘strict liability’ for claims made against employers following accidents at work. ‘Strict liability’ means that in some cases, employers can be held liable for an accident at work, even if the employer took all reasonable steps to prevent this accident. Whilst strict liability may sound unfair, we must remember that an employee may be seriously injured at work purely due to using a piece of equipment provided to them by their employer. It would be equally unfair to expect an employee, who may be unable to work due to their injuries, not to recover compensation from a situation in which they were completely blameless. We must also remember that the employer is in the stronger position as they hold the documents that an injured person will need to see in order to pursue their claim.

Removing the strict liability aspect from claims against employers makes it much harder for injured parties to claim compensation. They must now prove that their employer was negligent and did not provide reasonable care. Where no fault can be proven, injured parties may not receive any compensation for loss of earnings or medical expenses etc, and therefore be undeservedly out of pocket.

It must be remembered that employers have, or should have, employers’ liability insurance to cover such accidents at work, and are thus not personally liable to pay compensation to their employees.

The Government’s stated aim in removing strict liability is to bring common sense back into health and safety law, and limit what they perceive to be a ‘compensation culture’. They state that “fear of civil suits is causing employers to over implement health & safety requirements and to insist on unnecessarily cautious work practices, both of which are increasing costs and reducing business growth”. This view however, is not based upon the independent report by Professor Löfstedt who was appointed by the Government to consider the issue and is arguably more influenced by tabloid headlines. Löfstedt states that “The approach being taken [by the government] is more far-reaching than I anticipated in my recommendation.” He goes on to reject tabloid claims that health and safety legislation has gone too far, and states that “health and safety legislation is not holding firms back, but rather is “vital” for corporations.” It is therefore worryingly anticipated that the removal of strict liability will see employers relaxing their health and safety standards, resulting in more accidents in the workplace.

Labour MP David Anderson states that “the Bill will create a new impression that all bets are off; that employers do not have to care about health and safety, and that people can do what they want as long as they believe it is reasonable.”

Many organisations are warning against cutting corners on health and safety. The trade union ‘UNISON’ state “As spending cuts take hold, there is a danger that health and safety hazards could increase. Under-staffing, excessive workloads, cutting corners on equipment, maintenance or training, an increased threat of violence from members of the public who are losing benefits and services – these are just some of the things branches need to watch out for.” The chief executive at the Injuries Board also cautions all organisations that “cutting corners on employee safety is a cut too far”.

Lastly, the Labour MP Iain Wright who attends the Workers’ Memorial Day which commemorates all workers who have lost their lives at work, or suffer from illness and injury through work related causes writes that “By removing what is known as strict liability for health and safety… it is helping negligent employers to cut corners on health and safety and makes the workplace that more dangerous.” This article is written in the aftermath of the recent tragedy in Bangladesh where a clothes factory collapsed killing hundreds of people. Ian Wright mentions this tragedy and states that “the campaign to keep workplaces safe is not yet won.”