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Health And Safety At Work Etc (Amendment)

Volume 982: debated on Wednesday 16 April 1980

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4.6 pm

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974 so as to control the moving or lifting of heavy weights by employed persons and for connected purposes.
At present the position regarding weight limits is confused. The Agriculture (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1959 provide for any workers employed in agriculture to lift.
"any load consisting of a sack or a bag together with its contents lifted or carried unaided a maximum of 180 lb."
Yet the Woollen and Worsted Textiles (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1926 put the maximum where the yarn, cloth, tool or appliance is reasonably compact at 150 lb and where it is not a rigid body at 120 lb. There is no reason for supposing that there is any physical difference between textile workers and agricultural workers.

Section 72(1) of the Factories Act 1961 limits the load for any employed person to
"any load so heavy as to be likely to cause injury"
to the person lifting, carrying or moving it. My Bill would retain that general limitation, but, in order to clarify and improve the position, the maximum weight permitted in any circumstances for adult males would be 112 lb.

The Bill would be classed as a "relevant statutory provision" under schedule 1 to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, and as such would be subject to the powers of the Minister under section 1 of that Act. That would mean that, should the Minister decide that further improvements were necessary as part of a review of the lifting of heavy weights in industry and agriculture, he would not be hindered by an Act which would not be part of the general legislative pattern. He would thus be able to repeal or alter the provisions of the Act by regulation made under the major statute, provided that any alterations were
"designed to maintain or improve the standards of health, safety and welfare."
However, it seems to me important to take action quickly, because of the num- ber of back injuries that occur, rather than wait for a review. Indeed, in a written question on 31 March 1976 I asked the then Secretary of State for Employment
"what consultations have been instituted with the Health and Safety Commission to produce legislation further to control the lifting of heavy weights by work people in order to reduce the demands on the Health Service arising from back injuries."
The Minister replied:
"I am advised by the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that the Health and Safety Executive has held informal discussions with representatives of a number of organisations having wide experience in the problems of the manual lifting of heavy weights. In addition, it is intended to include the subject in a review of the wider field of ergonomics which is to be undertaken by the Executive."—[Official Report, 31 March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 486.]
I tabled the question on 31 March 1976. At that stage the Health and Safety Commission was about to embark on a review of the lifting of heavy weights, incorporating much detail and expert advice. So far there has been no result. The anomalous position that I outlined in 1976 still pertains. The legislation has not been improved one jot. One is driven to the conclusion that the only weight lifted by many concerned with the issue is a piece of paper. If members of the Health and Safety Commission were to do a stint in a foundry or a mill, lifting bolts of cloth or pieces of machinery, there might be speedier action.

About 50,000 people are involved each year in accidents resulting in strains, sprains and other injuries to the trunk, including slipped discs. I hope that my Bill will help reduce the toll.

Lifting heavy weights also contributes to back pain. On 18 January a Conservative Member pointed out:
"Every day 56,000 people are off work because of back pain. Every year 18 million working days are lost because of it, which is more than the number of days lost because of strikes."—[Official Report, 18 January 1980; Vol. 976, c. 2173.]
On average each year over 15 million working days are lost through industrial injury. In 1976, by comparison, 3½ million days were lost in strike action. In 1977 it was just over 10 million, as opposed to about 15 million days lost in the same year through industrial injury.

The Government are enacting Draconian legislation against trade unions. It would be preferable if they concentrated on eradicating or at least reducing industrial injury. One way that that can be done is by supporting this modest measure.

My Bill is a small step in the right direction. The TUC wants a lower level, which I believe is right, but by making my Bill a relevant statutory provision, which is a legal definition under the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act, the Minister can improve the position by regulation.

For four years the Health and Safety Executive has been looking at the problem, and it is apparently about to embark on yet another working party, because the commission cannot agree on regulations. We should not wait for a further 200,000 accidents, with millions of pounds worth of National Health Service facilities being utilised. It is time that action was taken.

While it is intended that the general provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act shall apply to this Bill and that it shall be subject to such means of enforcement as improvment and prohibition notices, it is also intended that section 47 shall be limited in its application, in that my Bill would give rise to civil liability under actions for breach of statutory duty. It is in that field that many workers have found the existing regulations most onerous.

In 1976 I quoted the position of a farm worker who was injured after lifting a load of about 180 lb. The position has not changed. That worker obtained compensation only because the defined weight could not be obtained, and the matter was settled out of court. As long as statutory limits remain high, such accidents will continue.

On 14 April 1976 I quoted from a letter written by a textile worker, who said:
"may I give you another example of unfair situations regarding the Health and Safety at Work Act and the attitude of management. An inspector employed in our cloth inspection department had occasion to lift a roll of cloth off a 'batching unit'. There is no good access to the above machine and the operator/inspector would have to stand sideways and attempt to lift approximately 150 lb. or more by leaning over the machine. Requests were made by the men in the inspector's department to make the job more accessible or redesign the hatching unit for better access. That was two years ago!"
I added:
"The access was altered only under threat of legal action by the men, and photographic evidence was taken which resulted in action."
Only last year that illustration in 1976 was emphasised by a constituent of mine who found herself in exactly the same position, and subsequently suffered a back injury at work.
"By bringing down the maximum weight to 112 lb., we should save the nation money, prevent many damaging accidents, keep more people at work in a better state of health and release valuable National Health Service facilities for other uses. Any future improvements recommended by the Commission can readily be incorporated in the way I have described. If action can be taken swiftly by approving the Bill, it will clarify a difficult and confused situation, and surely in health and safety at work, that can only be of benefit."—[Official Report, 14 April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 1394–5.]
In 1976 people were reviewing, examining and re-examining the position, yet nothing has been done to legislate on the matter. The Department of Employment, which is responsible for it, has not even bothered to send anyone to keep a watching brief on the proposals. That is a disgrace.

I hope that the House will give its approval for the introduction of the Bill. By this modest measure the House can reduce industrial injury and the resulting pain.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Jim Marshall, Mr. Frank Haynes, Mr. Ted Fletcher, Mr. John Evans, Mr. Norman Atkinson, Mr. Frank Allaun, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Mr. Joan Evans, Mr. Russell Kerr and Dr. M. S. Miller.

Health And Safety At Work Etc (Amendment)

Mr. Bob Cryer accordingly presented a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work Etc. Act 1974 so as to control the moving or lifting of heavy weights by employed persons and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 9 May and to be printed. [Bill 192.]