Deregulation is really a workplace death wish

By Rory O’Neill Hazards Magazine

A UK government-commissioned review of health and safety, which will report to ministers in autumn 2011, is not really about changing the law. It’s about risk envy – our competitors don’t all abide by strict rules governing safety and decency at work, so why should the UK? And it is a topic on which Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, charged with undertaking the review, is an acknowledged expert.

In May 2011, the government put out a call for evidence for the Löfstedt review, inviting contributions “from all interested parties on the scope for reducing the burden of health and safety regulation on UK businesses whilst maintaining health and safety outcomes.”

The government said the review “is part of a package of changes to Britain’s health and safety system to support the government’s growth agenda and cut red tape.” It hopes Professor Löfstedt will give it license for a backdoor erosion of safety rights and of the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) enforcement role.

In the US, the professor has been a prominent opponent of tighter regulatory controls on industry. Under his “risk-risk” analysis he argues they can mean an unjustified bill for firms that would then be disadvantaged in global markets.

In the case of Portland cement, a potential human carcinogen, Löfstedt’s March 2010 report concluded “putting forward stringent regulation on the US cement industry, will lead to a risk transfer from the United States to offshore (most notably China), leading to negligible environmental improvements for the United States and the global community.”

The March 2010 analysis was press released by the cement industry. The paper contained all the key talking points from the business lobby’s anti-regulation template. Regulations cost jobs, regulations are expensive, regulations are unfair to domestic industry and regulations don’t work. It’s a package found repeatedly to be based on inflated estimates of costs and consequences, and a blind eye to the potential benefits.

Equally concerning, it is informed by an assumption that regardless of the costs, it should be the world’s dirtiest players that set the standard. The logic would also make forced labour an economic necessity – it’s a practice that remains a significant problem worldwide, and which presumably offers some economic advantage to less scrupulous employers.

Professor Löfstedt’s work has not previously focussed on occupational health and safety issues. However, he is viewed as a strong anti-regulation advocate by many who have encountered him on food safety and environmental issues. He is an adjunct professor at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, a body which has been criticised strongly by unions, safety and environmental advocates in the USA as an anti-regulation “front” for business interests.

Throughout July 2011, in the midst of the health and safety review, Professor Löfstedt is scheduled to be running a 30-session ‘Managing hazards in Europe and the United States’ course at King’s College London. He will be working hand-in-hand with long-time collaborator and founder of the Harvard Center, Professor John D Graham. The academic’s 2001 nomination for a key regulation-busting role in George W Bush’s administration prompted a letter from 53 of his peers warning Graham’s work “demonstrated a remarkable congruency with the interests of regulated industries.”

Morality and facts are already casualties of the business driven ‘business burdens’ debate, and safety is set to follow suit. The deregulation urge is now so engrained at the UK’s safety watchdog, HSE, it routinely ignores evidence that legal standards designed to protect workers from established poisons like lead and cancer-causing chemicals are inadequate and tightening them will save lives.

Its latest denial of responsibility involves workplace dust. Unions have long called for tighter dust exposure standards and HSE’s own advisory committees have demanded a campaign to promote awareness of the risks. Even if HSE was willing, which is it not, it now says “constrained resources” rule out a campaign. And despite acknowledging evidence showing hundreds of lives each year could be saved if employers reduced workplace dust exposures, it describes this as “only limited benefits” so it would not be tightening the occupational exposure standard.

This outbreak of deregulatory fever not limited to the UK. Business lobby groups across the world are issuing a stream of cookie-cutter reports. It is not about lifting burdens, it is about evading responsibility. This may seem a good idea from the safety of the boardroom, but at the shopfloor it is, inevitably, a bloody disaster.