Businesses and their leaders who fail to appropriately manage risks associated with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and occupational lung disease (OLD) are the target of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) current focus on work-related ill health. This was the message to an audience of insurers and businesses by global law firm Clyde & Co at its 2019 Health and Safety Forum.

Introducing the seminar, Rod Hunt, partner in Clyde and Co’s nationally recognised SHE Regulatory Department, explained that the HSE was prioritising interventions and enforcement in the field of work-related ill health and was seeking to maximise publicity from its enforcement activity. This, he said, would lead to reputational damage for employers found to be in breach of legislation.

Hunt explained that work-related ill health costs the UK economy approaching £10 billion per year.

Examining why work-related ill health remained a major issue for the UK, Dr Steve Cowley, an expert in manual handling and MSDs, said that flawed risk assessments and ‘primitive’ ways of undertaking tasks must take much of the blame.

He said:

“We’ve known about these problems for a long time but, with all our efforts, we’re not seeing the dramatic change I’d like to see.

“Risk assessments are going wrong. Many are not evidence-based. They’re being carried out by someone sitting at their desk. It’s a case of work-imagined versus work-done. In some cases, the task has changed since the risk assessment was carried out. In others – for example, shovelling – there are many different kinds of shovelling, which isn’t reflected in the risk assessment.

“One common defence against a claim is that the employer provided training. But in many cases, the training was classroom-based and did not reflect the reality of the task. There is no evidence that manual training in its standard form reduces risk.”

Occupational hygienist Martin Steer, an expert in OLD, noted that staff were not being trained in control measures and it was commonplace for equipment like extractors used to control harmful substances to deteriorate and break down. Steer also noted that while firms were good at recognising hazardous substances they purchased for their manufacturing process, they were much poorer at recognising hazardous substances created during the manufacturing process.

Professor Andrew Sharman said that health and safety practitioners’ desire to achieve a ‘zero accident culture’ was not appropriate or realistic. He said:

“The absence of accidents does not mean the existence of safety. It could be down to luck or plain misreporting. We need to talk about safety in a more meaningful way, with sincerity and integrity. And it must be led from the top.”

Richard Matthews QC flagged the range of likely enforcement action the HSE may take if businesses fail to comply. In the worst cases, this could involve prosecution with the potential for significantly larger fines under the new sentencing guidelines.

Clyde & Co’s SHE Regulatory Department specialises in advising businesses faced with criminal investigation and enforcement action by regulatory bodies such as the HSE.