Workers' health and safety has become a major issue of debate in the UK corporate world because it has been found that in several cases, occupational injuries occur not due to the negligence of the employees but more because of the inappropriate safety measures. While not every person would agree with this, at least those in the legal profession maintain that employers can be charged with serious OHS offence if available evidence suggests that the reason behind death of an employee was unsafe working environment. (Wells: p.5) While the employers are required to conform to certain health and safety guidelines, it is still believed that United Kingdom is experiencing a sudden increase in the number of injuries and deaths on workplace making the British working environment rather unsafe.
Evening News (2001) reports:
The number of work-related deaths in the UK increased by 75 last year, reversing an improving trend for workplace safety. The Health and Safety Commission voiced concern at the 295 deaths and said it was looking for a "significant improvement." More than a third of the deaths were in the construction industry, while other sectors affected included agriculture, forestry and fishing. Thousands more cases of work-related stress and mental health problems were reported in the year to March, and there were 7800 new cases related to muscular problems."
It is the ethical and moral obligation of the employers to provide a safety and healthy working environment to employees. This has been clearly stated in "The Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999" that employers are under an ethical and legal obligation to monitor the workplace for potential safety and health risks. The guidelines contained in the documents specifically focus on the potential risks and their assessment stating that:
1) Every employer shall make a suitable and sufficient assessment of a) the risks to the health and safety of his employees to which they are exposed whilst they are at work; and b) the risks to the health and safety of persons not in his employment arising out of or in connection with the conduct by him of his undertaking
Source: The management of Safety and Health Regulations 1999 online document)
It is clear from the guidelines that every firm is required to perform a thorough risk assessment to determine the potential for health and safety hazards at the workplace and to take appropriate action in this connection. The terms "suitable" and "sufficient" imply that employers 'will recognise all foreseeable hazards, assess the risks arising from these measures and identify both the measures needed to control the risks and any other appropriate action necessary to comply with the employer's duties'. (EEC Directive)
The most important characteristic of the standards of workplace safety that are now prevalent in the UK is that they are based on a three-step framework. In other words, all standards including the Management of Safety and Health at Work regulations 1999 are developed using a three-step system. These are a) identification of problems b) assessment of risks and c) risk control. Employers are under a strict legal obligation to examine operational procedures to ensure their compliance with health and safety guidelines and to assess potential risks. Work-related operations are to be carefully reviewed and regularly improved in order to minimize the risk of injuries and fatalities at work.
Similar other regularly standards in the UK advocate risk assessment and control method. For example The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 1988 (COSHH) (UK) requires employers to regular evaluate operational procedures and take appropriate action to assess and control potential risks to healthy and safety of workers.
With clear guidelines available to the employers, it is a sad fact that incidents of workplace deaths and injuries continue to rise and increased almost 75% in last few years. Commentators and experts maintain that this is mainly due to regulation implementation problem. In other words, they argue that an overload of ambiguously created legislation and guidelines is one of the main causes of rising safety and health risks.
In 1994, a review of healthy and safety regulations in the UK revealed that:
over time, a mass of legal requirements, recommendations (in approved codes of practice) and suggestions (in guidance) about health and safety paperwork has grown up... Of course very few firms are covered by more than a few of these requirements and recommendations. However, there is: confusion amongst companies and others about exactly what is required or recommended; considerable inconsistency between the various requirements and recommendations; and doubt whether all of them are still necessary, especially given the risk assessment and control, training and information provisions of modern legislation.
Review of Health & Safety Legislation: 1994: p. 8)
Other experts argue that is not the ambiguity of regulatory procedures but rather the collective weight of an ever-increasing number of regulations that has led to slower economic growth and a less than effective health and safety system in workplace. It is believed that 'it is the cumulative effect of many regulations that weighs business down'. (Building Business: p.4)
The critics may have a valid argument against safety regulations but they cannot effectively dismiss the need for such laws and guidelines. It has been proved that a proper framework is not only needed, it actually has managed to bring positive changes to the health and safety practices prevalent in UK. Evidence shows that 'generic codes of practice for particular hazards are useful, and in some cases essential, starting points for an industry code... providing a set of principles and performance requirements which, where relevant, can be adopted by the industry to its needs'.(Department of Industrial Relations: 1995: p. 4)
Such hazard-prevention regulations are important for the purpose of risk assessment too. without a proper regulatory framework or guidelines, it is possible to overlook some minor but critical risky areas. These regulations 'draw the attention of those responsible for managing risks to the types of hazards they need to address, which are different for different types of hazards and may be easily overlooked in a generic risk assessment'. (Occupational Health and Safety, Submission DR275)
Some common Risks:
Though the death rate has declined significantly, workplace fatalities are still a common problem in the UK. This goes to show that unsafe working practices and dangerous workplace are the reasons why so many civilians face life-threatening situations at work. Construction firms are places where rate of death due to fatal occupational injuries is very high. This is because construction is an occupation that involves working under half-constructed and weak buildings. In such situations, employees are required to protect themselves from any possible danger but it is also the duty of the employers to follow the guidelines provided by Health and safety Commission so as not to endanger the lives of their workers.
Construction is the probably the riskiest of all jobs when it comes to number of deaths that occur in this one occupation. Workers frequently encounter fatalities due to things falling on their heads, or people falling off the weak barriers or something even getting crushed by huge forklifts. Agricultural workers also face similar problems, as some 170,000 workers die each year, according to ILO report.
Not all workplace fatalities occur due to unsafe working practices or use of dangerous working equipment but injuries can result due to employer's negligence when hiring workers too. This is because workplace violence has become a common phenomenon where a violent worker would attack his colleagues when things do not go his way. This is in fact the greatest cause of violence on the job, which can result in serious fatalities. Employers can then be held responsible if they failed to check a worker's background when they recruited him. Usually employers are required to thoroughly check the reasons why a worker was removed from his previous job but if the present employers fail to do so, they can be held responsible when that worker becomes violent at workplace and hurts a colleague or client. 'Negligent hiring' can lead to lawsuits and employees can sue the employers if a fellow-worker's violent actions result in serious injuries. While the employer cannot be sued for random acts of violence, his failure to gauge a candidate's potential for violence can drag him to court. Therefore while we cannot also hold employers responsible in all the cases, they can certainly be sued for negligent hiring if a worker with history of violence seriously hurts a colleague or a customer.
Secondhand smoke in workplace can cause health injuries, which results in loss of productivity. It is important to understand that secondhand smoking refers to presence of smokers in same buildings where non-smokers work and where ventilation system is poor thus resulting in injury to respiratory system along with possible eye infections.
University of California at San Diego, CHEST, July 1991 reports, "Employees who breathe smoke from their co-workers' cigarettes miss twice as…