Reshaping health and safety enforcement: institutionalising impunity

Tombs, Steve and Whyte, David (2012). Reshaping health and safety enforcement: institutionalising impunity. In: Dickens, Linda ed. Making Employment Rights Effective: Issues of Enforcement and Compliance. Oxford: Hart, pp. 67–86.



If there is an enduring principle in health and safety law it is that there exists a ‘natural identity of interests’ between employers and employees. This principle—upon which the western liberal tradition of social regulation is based—can be traced back to early forms of social regulation in the nineteenth century (Tucker 1990; Carson 1985). It is also the principle that formally underpins the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (1974 Act). The Robens Report, which laid the foundations of the 1974 Act, asserted that: ‘there is greater natural identity of interest between “the two sides” in relation to health and safety problems than in most other matters. There is no legitimate scope for “bargaining” on safety and health issues’ (Robens 1972: para 66). The 1974 Act established the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the national regulator for occupational health and safety (OHS; see also chapter two). It is responsible for regulating over 800,000 premises across the country, while also being charged with the regulatory activities of over 380 local authorities which enforce health and safety law across retailing, wholesale distribution, hotel and catering premises, offices, and consumer/leisure industries. This chapter examines recent trends in regulatory activity conducted by the HSE.
The pervading assumption that underpins the principle of a ‘natural identity of interests’—in essence the guiding principle for the bulk of the HSE’s work—is that conflict over health and safety in the workplace has, or should have, no place in industrial relations. Health and safety occupies a special status that takes it beyond normal processes of industrial bargaining. Also, and related to this point, because health and safety conditions are removed from the normal business of collective bargaining, they are disconnected from the labour process. Thus, the conditions of work that often have a direct impact upon the labour process such as the intensity of work, changes in systems of work, or even more obvious features such as lack of training, working long hours and so on, are artificially segregated as matters of ‘safety’ or ‘bargaining’. What this principle and ‘better regulation’, the subject matter of this chapter, have in common is that they both rely upon the idea of ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR). It is with the centrality of this idea to the politics of neo-liberalism that the next section is concerned, before we set out in detail a case study of recent shifts in UK health and safety policy.

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