Friday, June 20, 2008

A crisis of enforcement: The decriminalisation of death and injury at work

A paper written by Professor Steve Tombs and Dr. David Whyte June 2008. It is available from the Crime and Justice website.

According to the paper "At least twice as many people die from fatal injuries at work than are victims of homicide." The figure of 1,300 work related fatalities was calculated from the HSE data for work place fatalities (241 for year 2006-7) and an estimated figure for road deaths that are work related (considered to be about 1000 of the 3500 killed on UK roads each year). This is compared with with 765 homicide victims.

The report argues that the recent trend towards the `light touch' regulation of business has in effect `decriminalised' death and injury at work. Also, a reduction in the capacity of bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive to inspect business and take appropriate action due to budget and job cuts has led to a situation where the vast majority of the most serious injuries, as well as many deaths, are not subject to any form of investigation. This raises questions about whether the current policy preoccupation with `conventional' crimes such as homicide, street violence and theft should be complemented by a much greater focus on workplace crimes and harms.

Professor Steve Tombs said "Violent street crime consumes enormous political, media and academic energy. But, as hundreds of thousands of workers and their families know, it is the violence associated with working for a living that is most likely to kill and hospitalise."

Dr David Whyte said: "HSE enforcement notices fell by 40% and prosecutions fell by 49% between 2001/02 and 2005/06. The collapse in HSE enforcement and prosecution sends a clear message that the government is prepared to let employers kill and maim with impunity."

The report is described as being part of a project that aims to "stimulate debate about what crime is, what it isn’t and who gets to decide." That being the case I hope the authors are not offended by my comments that follow.

I find the logic of the report very difficult to follow. I just can't see a comparison between work related accidents and murder being valid or useful. Equally, if I were to be arguing such a case I would have thought road accidents or even work related health issues would have been far more interesting to investigate as both do kill far more people than workplace accidents.

I think the argument the report is trying to make is that more HSE inspectors are required so that more accidents can be investigated and more companies prosecuted. But there is no attempt to show that falling numbers of inspectors has actually resulted in more accidents.

Also, I think the authors feel that prosecuting more companies will inevitably improve safety. I am not sure this is the case. I believe our aim in safety is to learn from accidents. Any suggestion of a prosecution immediately creates an adversarial situation. Hence, rather than sharing information and learning the company has to construct a defence, which will almost always reduce the information that is made available.

I'd say the article is interesting and could create a good debate. But I personally, do not agree with the general theme.

Andy Brazier

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