I sometimes feel like the ubiquitous 'whinning Brit' arguing against the latest European Commission proposal for a health and safety directive. Naturally business gets concerned about the effect of new regulation - particularly when we are still at a relatively fragile stage of recovery from a deep recession. However there is a more fundamental issue at stake: an emphasis on continued regulation, rather than improving consistency of compliance with existing requirements, will not reduce exposure to risk and may well actually increase it. Here's the reasoning.
Early EU health and safety directives were well-judged and set the right approach. As well as establishing a clear set of rights and responsibilities, The structure established by, for example the Health and Safety Framework Directive 1989, requires that risks presented by a workplace are identified, assessed and acted upon together in a holistic fashion. The European Commission and Parliament deserve credit for establishing this. That may not be a fashionable view, but I strongly believe it is true.
A holistic approach is essential; risks present in a workplace be assessed, prioritised and acted upon in a joined-up manner. This allows the employer to identify synergies or tensions between the risks or indeed between the proposed control measures. If risks are assessed in isolation a measure to reduce one may inadvertently increase another. A holistic approach is also essential in prioritising actions appropriately so that the highest risks receive attention first.
However, in recent years we have seen the adoption of a number of hazard-specific directives. Initially these focussed upon hazards that contributed very significantly to workplace ill health and injury, for example abestos and moving machinery safety. Recently they have focussed on risks that make very small contributions to the overall statistics, such as optical radiation and electromagnetic fields.
Directives are based around the same essential structure, but each tends to set out its own, slightly different criteria and process for risk assessment and control. That is a problem for two reasons. Firstly it tends to fragment the holistic approach to risk so that synergies and tensions are missed and prioritisation is poor. Secondly it results in unnecessary time and money being spent upon the process of assessment, when this could be better spent upon effective controls; it’s a well-used adage, but on it’s own paperwork never saved a single life.
So if new legislation is not the answer to improving management of risk, what is? I believe that the European Parliament and Commission need to direct their attention to ensuring that the original structure is effective in practice. That means that implementation – including enforcement of existing requirements needs to be effective and consistent across all member states. Enforcement activity should be risk-based, directing activity to higher risk sectors and those who are managing risks and thus putting workers at serious risk.
There also needs to be much better promotion of, and practical support for, duty holders. That is not just down to the European Commission or even member governments - employers groups, trade unions and others have a key role to play. Many are also contributing, EEF for example last year published detailed guidance on metalworking fluids and a tool for board monitoring of meaningful objectives. And we will very shortly be publishing case-study guidance on solutions to common musculoskeletal disorders.
There is more we can do and we are keen to play our part – particularly if we are not occupied fighting well-intentioned but poorly thought-through legislation that will do nothing to improve protection in practice.