Like OSHA, England's HSE Defending Its Enforcement

OSHA's performance for the past few years is suddenly unpopular on Capitol Hill, if the newly introduced Protecting America's Workers Act is any indication. U.S. House and Senate Democratic leaders introduced it April 26, bidding to adjust the OSH Act, increase federal safety penalties, cover the federal workforce, and open employers to felony charges if their repeated and willful violation leads to a worker's death or serious injury. Over in England, the Health and Safety Executive is likewise defending its enforcement approach -- even though only 212 workplace deaths occurred there last year, a fraction of the 5,734 recorded in the United States in 2005, according to BLS.

Worker injuries also are much lower in Britain, at 146,076 in 2006. Still, HSE points out most of these were preventable. "Injuries at work don't just affect the victim, but all those around them. It is our responsibility to ensure that all workers are given the protection they need and deserve to carry out their everyday duties, and it is everyone's role to make sure this happens; trade unions, employees, regulators, and the employers," said Geoffrey Podger, HSE's chief executive.

HSE's defensiveness came after a report said too few prosecutions are taking place in England's construction industry, where deaths are increasing. "We take any death at work very seriously," Podger responded. "We share [the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians'] concern that there are too many deaths in the construction industry. Indeed, after a period of much progress, there is a possible 20-25 percent rise in fatal accidents in the industry this year. HSE takes fatal accidents very seriously and our staff are very committed to their investigation and, where right, prosecution. Nobody, least of all HSE, underestimates the devastation that the death of a loved one can cause; but that should not be the basis for bringing a prosecution. This is not a police state. We do not prosecute without proper justification -- both evidential and public interest. There are many reasons why a fatality might not always lead to a prosecution: For instance if during a long investigation a company goes into liquidation, there is no duty holder to prosecute; if a self-employed individual were to fall from a ladder whilst working on their own, there are often no witnesses." Podger said some of the UCATT report's statistics are inaccurate; it lists 12 convictions in 2002-03, but HSE knows of about 30 convictions for that year. "This issue is in danger of becoming a distraction from the real issue, which is that construction deaths are creeping up again," Podger said. "The question should be, how are we all going to work together to stop this?"

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