Health and safety must not suffer during recession

During this difficult economic period, businesses across the country are looking to cut costs in any way possible. But ministers, trades unions and business groups have all warned that the recession cannot be a reason to cut back on health and safety.

There has been a spate of significant health and safety cases in recent months, many of which have resulted in large settlements in favour of employees. One Surrey-based building firm, for example, was fined £15,000 after an employee fell through a roof and was paralysed. There is general concern that the financial pressures wrought on companies by the current downturn will result in a reduction of vital safety measures, and an increase in the number of accidents.

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), which represents 35,000 health and safety professionals worldwide, has stressed the importance of ensuring that safety standards are maintained during the recession, suggesting that the consequences of scrimping in this fundamentally important area are likely to be severe.

No let-up from HSE

The IOSH was recently addressed by Lord McKenzie, a Department for Work and Pensions minister with responsibility for ‘Health and Safety at work’. Lord McKenzie stressed that economic pressures would not be considered a valid excuse by the Health & Safety Executive for slipping standards, saying: “There’s been little change in the injury and deaths rates over the last six years and we cannot allow the difficult economic circumstances to drive things back. Health and safety is not an optional extra.”

Meanwhile the British Safety Council (BSC), an independent charity conducting research into the health and safety industry, has said that one in 12 workers feels under pressure to take risks in order to save money. Furthermore, one in 10 workers is “fearful of raising concerns about health and safety in the current economic climate.”

The BSC’s figures are worrying for businesses on two levels. It is, of course, the ‘front-line’ staff members that are most aware of the realities of health and safety provision in any company, and any concerns raised by these individuals must be taken seriously. The fact that fewer employees feel able to raise such concerns should be of significant concern.

Damage to the bottom line

Furthermore, health and safety has an important impact on your company’s bottom line. Employees who feel safe are likely to work harder; 70 per cent state that they would feel “more inclined to be productive” if they thought their employer was paying attention to their health and safety concerns. As such, employers who continue to take proactive steps to improve working conditions are likely to be rewarded by a more productive, more efficient workforce.

Finally, it is important to note that every employer has a set of health and safety responsibilities that they have a legal obligation to fulfil. As Lord McKenzie stated, health and safety is not optional. It is a vital part of any business’s operation, and must form the bedrock of your management strategies. As a business owner you must make sure that you are fulfilling your duties under health and safety law, and that you have sufficient employers’ liability insurance - another important legal responsibility.

Health and safety must continue to be a top priority for all businesses. While the recession has resulted in severe financial pressure for many companies, employees’ safety is a sacrosanct area that must not be the subject of dangerous cost cutting.