The recent revelation that the number of UK health and safety inspectors has fallen by 50% in the past 10 years does not point to a particularly new trend. It followed a 50% fall in the previous decade. Inspections are so rare now that the average workplace can expect an inspector to call less than once every 50 years. In fact, there has been a 40-year long campaign by successive governments to undermine funding of the government’s watchdog, the Health and Safety Executive. At the same time, attacks on trade unions have resulted in the decline of union safety representatives and committees.
The truth is that the UK has always resisted complying with international standards on health and safety, including PPE. In a new report launched this week, we have tracked the country’s dismissive attitude towards the very concept back four decades. Since the early 1980s, it has refused to sign the key UN International Labour Organisation (ILO) treaty on workplace safety. This treaty (the ILO’s 1981 Occupational Safety and Health Convention) has been ratified by 65 nations including Spain, Brazil and Nigeria. And when the treaty was drawn up, the UK government took particular issue to PPE, refusing to be bound by international standards.
Although we now do – largely thanks to the EU – have strict rules about the provision of PPE in the workplace, the British government still refuses to adhere to international law. Indeed, a more detailed analysis reveals that the UK is one of the least compliant in the world. The country has ratified only 6 of the 35 ‘up-to-date’ ILO health and safety protocols and conventions. In a league table of EU states’ support for those conventions and protocols, the UK lies 26 out of 28. Only Romania and Estonia have signed up to less.
A withering disdain for all workplace safety standards is closer to the heart of British Conservatism than is normally acknowledged. The COVID crisis has exposed this very clearly. On the day that the government’s own scientific advisors were recommending warning people not to shake hands, Boris Johnson boasted about doing so with “everybody” at a hospital where there were confirmed coronavirus cases.
He may have had a lucky escape. But as countless others have pointed out, his luck was markedly improved by early testing and immediate hospital admittance. A lack of both of those has certainly killed thousands.
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