Are Offices Hazard-Free?

Britain's system of regulating and enforcing health and safety standards may be headed for a round of Margaret Thatcher-like pruning, now that Lord Young, a former minister under Thatcher, has begun a review of the scheme at the request of David Cameron, the country's new conservative prime minister. Lord Young oversaw privatization of state industries and was labor and employment minister during Thatcher's era in power.

Armed with the title Advisor on Health and Safety to the Prime Minister, he is scheduled to complete his review by this summer. He has told British newspapers that he'll restore "common sense" to regulations and is looking specifically at the regulation of office work environments, saying, "I don't think offices are dangerous places."

Chair Judith Hackitt of the Health and Safety Executive, which enforces the regulations, already has sent a letter telling Young the real problem is recalcitrant employers.

"The terms of reference of your review extend beyond HSE's remit, which is concerned with addressing real risks and preventing death, injury and ill health to those at work and those affected by work related activities," she wrote. "However, we in HSE have been saying for some time that health and safety is being used by too many as a convenient excuse to hide behind. We welcome your review and stand ready to make available to you whatever information or insight we can."

HSE posted a news release about Hackitt's letter and a PDF of Lord Young's reply dated June 16, which says little more than that he welcomes HSE's cooperation. "I will ensure that my team fully engage with you and your colleagues over the coming weeks," he wrote.

HSE for three years has carried on a campaign trying to dispel what it calls myths about safety and its enforcement (citing, for example, erroneous claims that HSE has banned toothpicks or knitting in hospitals).

Everyone agrees OSHA -- HSE's equivalent -- is bolder and more active in rulemaking, fines, and enforcement today under President Obama than it was during the eight years of George W. Bush's presidency. Young's review revives some of the fundamental questions of a safety and health career and goes to the foundation of the industry, in fact: Are modern safety regulations needless, bureaucratic red tape or essential protections for workers? Do they hurt or help the bottom line? What's the right mix of carrot and stick for regulatory and enforcement authorities?

Posted by Jerry Laws on Jun 17, 2010