Small firms get health and safety exemptions

Hundreds of thousands of small businesses will now be exempt from health and safety inspections under new plans announced by the government.

The changes form the centrepiece of the latest round of regulatory reform, billed as a “red tape bonfire”. In total it is thought that some 3,000 regulations will be scrapped or changed.

Exemptions will be introduced from April 2013, when local authorities and the Health and Safety Executive will become subject to new restrictions. The exemptions will only apply to what are deemed to be ‘low-risk’ workplaces, such as shops and pubs. Higher risk workplaces such as construction sites will still be subject to inspection, as will firms with a poor safety record.

The government insists that freedom from inspection is a return to “common sense”, and will help businesses with their finances.

Have the changes been welcomed?

Reaction to the move has varied from cautious support to near-outrage. Some business groups have welcomed the change, suggesting that the government is right to reduce what they perceive as a burden on small businesses. Many have pointed out that it is not just the inspections that are resource-intensive, but also the preparation. These groups have tended to suggest that any reduction in regulation is welcome, but that the moves do not go far enough.

Others, however, are less keen. Unions have reacted with fury to the plans, insisting that they will make for more dangerous workplaces in which employees are placed at higher risk. In the middle are health and safety practitioners, who point out that despite tabloid headlines health and safety regulations are an intrinsic part of efforts to save workers and the public from injury or ill health. There are just 200 health and safety regulations in force in the UK, and of those only a small proportion have been considered in the government’s overhaul.

What else does the government propose?

The “red tape bonfire” has long been one of the fundamental planks of the government’s business strategy. The coalition believes that firms need to be freed from regulation if they are to be as profitable as possible – putting them at odds with those who favour employee protection.

Indeed, it is thought that employees will continue to be in the firing line as the government expands its war on regulation. The coalition has already signalled that it intends to relax employment laws and, while the business secretary has insisted that the UK will not return to a “hire and fire” culture, it can safely be assumed that employers will enjoy fewer restrictions on their ability to part with workers.

Any such moves are likely to be controversial, and will meet with opposition from unions and others. It is already known that the government intends to change the law to ensure that businesses are only held liable for compensation in health and safety claims when it can be shown that they have acted negligently. There are also thought to be moves afoot to make it even more difficult for employees to bring tribunal cases.

If you are unsure whether your workplace will be classed as low risk, you should contact the Health and Safety Executive directly.