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Government’s “Missed Opportunity” To Improve Workplace Safety

Experts Say New Law Will Put Workers At Risk and Impact On Access To Justice

24.04.2013

By Dave Grimshaw

Specialist injury lawyers Irwin Mitchell say the Government has “missed a great opportunity” to improve workplace safety and believe a new law set to be passed within weeks will put employees at a greater risk of injury and mean they are less likely to receive support to help them recover.

A late amendment to the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Bill overturns the current laws, in place for over 100 years, which enable employees to rely on breaches of health and safety legislation by the employer which caused serious injury when seeking justice and rehabilitation treatment.

The House of Lords has backed down on their previous stance and will now allow the House of Commons to re-insert the new clause which is expected to become law within the next two weeks.

The Government acknowledges that it  has acted in response to  anecdotal evidence from businesses that the idea of a compensation culture - described as a myth in two separate government reports - is causing employers to "over comply" with health and safety legislation.

Lawyers say the Government’s efforts should have been to address the myth and educate employers in how best to keep their workers safe, rather than deprive injured employees of crucial support and rehabilitation to help them get their lives back on track.

David Urpeth, National head of the workplace injury and illness team at Irwin Mitchell, said: “The new law will inevitably lead to a dilution of safety standards at work. It’s a double blow for employees: they will be at greater risk of injury and be less likely to recover compensation if they are injured.

“The sad fact is that victims of illness or injury may not be able to gain justice even if their employer is in the wrong and has been convicted of a criminal offence.

“This new law will leave a large number of people in an impossible position, as victims of injury may not be able to easily access information and evidence required by the civil courts to prove employers were at fault by establishing that they were negligent. Some victims simply won’t have access to the same resources and evidence that their employers will in defending the case.

“This is a hugely controversial issue and a serious setback for access to justice when the legal system is already going through a period of immense change. It sends out completely the wrong message to employers over the importance health and safety and doesn’t encourage them to look after the welfare of their employees.”

Figures shared by the British Safety Council at the recent Health and Safety Reform Conference highlighted that the cost of injury and illness at work is £13.4 billion each year. However, crucially, the majority of this cost falls on the individual or family concerned, not on businesses or the state.

Urpeth is concerned that previous reports by Professor Lofstedt – which were the catalyst for the reforms - have been taken out of context and used to push through new legislation without proper evidence and consultation.

He comments: “Recent comments to the health and safety community by the British Safety Council clearly demonstrate that they are against the extent of the reforms and they say businesses themselves believe the regulatory framework is working well.

“Professor Lofstedt himself has criticised the new amendment saying that he doesn’t agree with it and it is not what he recommended in his report. What the government has done is take a very general view and applied it to very specific areas of the law it wants to remove.

“It’s misconceived to couch these reforms as being a tool to relieve business of an unnecessary burden, when in fact it is those that are ill and injured who will currently face a greater burden, which will only increase should the law be passed. It could also result in more injured workers being left reliant on benefits at significant cost to the taxpayer.

“In practice few prosecutions occur for breach of health and safety regulations. The threat of litigation as a result of failing to comply with regulations is what encourages employers – and their insurers – to maintain high standards of safety at work.”

Read more about Irwin Mitchell's expertise in Workplace Injury and Illness Claims.