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College and university health fears as inspectorate ignores modern risks

29 September 2006 | last updated: 15 December 2015

The health of thousands of college and university staff is being put at risk by a shift in the focus of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) from inspection and enforcement to the offering of guidance to employers, according to UCU.

The union is so concerned it has called for a rethink of government health and safety strategy in its highly critical submission to an HSE consultation, published today: 'Improving workplace involvement - improving health and safety'.

According to UCU, the HSE is failing to adapt to modern workplace hazards such as stress, bullying and RSI, and failing to recognise that too many employers in further and higher education pay only 'lip service' to health and safety.

The HSE is seeking to reduce the regulatory burden on employers by moving away from enforcement to guidance, but UCU says the poor attitude towards health and safety by some employers requires greater use of enforcement powers, not a softer, voluntarist approach of education and advice.

Concerns about stress in education were highlighted recently by the suicide of an academic whose work pressures had reportedly contributed to her death.

UCU says too many employers:

  • only do the statutory minimum at best and avoid responsibility by claiming HSE guidance is only advice and not a duty;
  • fail to integrate health and safety into management practices;
  • fail to properly consult or provide adequate duty time for union health and safety reps;
  • fail to respond to new health risks like stress.

UCU head of equality and employment rights Roger Kline said: 'A complete rethink of the HSE's direction is needed. Education lacks the physical hazards of some sectors, but there are major health and safety concerns. Stress levels in education are twice the national average for all sectors. RSI (repetitive strain injury) is also a serious issue for many.

'HSE don't enforce occupational health issues as they should. They will ensure that a guard on a machine is replaced if someone's fingers are cut off, but they have to be pushed on health issues like stress. They have failed to adapt to the modern workplace - and so have many FE and HE employers. People rarely get crushed in coalmine roof-falls now - but they do get crushed by workloads and crushed by bullying from managers given unrealistic targets.

If the HSE continues to move away from enforcement, and if there is no cultural change by more college and university employers, we shall see more not less serious illness, injury and absence.

'Encouragement has failed to motivate most FE and HE employers to act. Evidence shows it is inspection backed by enforcement that is the most effective way of ensuring employers comply with their health and safety responsibilities.'

HSE cuts

The time spent by HSE staff in direct contact with employers has fallen in all of HSE's divisions bar one despite a growth in the number of workplaces. In 2001/02 the average frequency of workplace inspections was once every seven years. Figures for 2006 suggest this has risen to every 13 years. There have already been cuts in real terms in the HSE's budget in the last four years and a further 350 HSE jobs are due to go.

Stress costs

The costs to the employer of not tackling work-related stress are huge. The HSE estimate that 6.5 million working days are lost in the UK every year due to stress. The CBI has put the cost of stress problems to employers at £5 billion per year. The Institute of Management has estimated that 270,000 people take time off work every day due to work related stress.

Hazards and lack of consultation

UCU knows of an employer who recently began asbestos removal without informing safety reps. Another, at an institution where a serious incident had taken place, failed to consult safety reps on the appointment of a health and safety manager despite the invaluable input which trained reps could have contributed. External employers working with further education colleges can also be a problem: academic staff arranging student work placements can find themselves asked to do a risk assessment for the students' workplaces - a complex duty the external employers should undertake.