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Workplace Deaths: Scotland

Volume 663: debated on Wednesday 24 July 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered workplace deaths in Scotland.

I know there are helicopters above us waiting for this speech, so I will just get started. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck, in this important debate. I thank the Scottish Trades Union Congress, Unite the union, Scottish Hazards and Families Against Corporate Killers for their time and assistance ahead of the debate.

There was a nearly 5% increase in workplace deaths in the UK last year, and a staggering 70% increase in Scotland. The Health and Safety Executive suggests that the increase was not “significant”, but as a trade unionist I firmly disagree. The death of any worker is significant for their family, friends and workmates, and the increase in workplace deaths across Scotland is significant for us in this House. It highlights that something is going wrong in sectors of the Scottish economy when it comes to the health and safety of workers. Working people look to us, their representatives, to raise and address their concerns. That is why I sought the debate.

According to the Health and Safety Executive, Scotland has the highest rate of workplace deaths per 100,000 workers in the UK. It also had the most recorded workplace deaths in the UK last year, at 29—higher than the annual average for Scotland of 19. I know the HSE will highlight that Scotland has fewer workers in low-risk industries than the other regions and nations of the UK, but surely that highlights why we must get workplace health and safety right in Scotland. Scotland has more workers in high-risk industries, who are more likely to be exposed to greater dangers in their workplace.

Both across the UK and in Scotland, the highest number of workplace deaths occur in the agriculture, construction and manufacturing sectors, but differences start to emerge between Scotland and the UK when we look at deaths by employment status. Across the UK, the self-employed are more than twice as likely as employees to suffer a fatal workplace injury, but in Scotland, the rate of fatal injury per 100,000 workers is higher among employees than among the self-employed. That greatly worries me, because it means that an increasing number of employees are being failed by their employers when it comes to health and safety in workplaces across Scotland.

The causes of those workplace deaths in Scotland also alarm me. Most of them were preventable if employers had properly enforced health and safety in the workplace. Workers should not operate machinery without appropriate protection, they should not fall from heights and they should not be struck by vehicles in the workplace. All those issues could be dealt with through proper enforcement and oversight of current health and safety regulations.

Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the increasing casualisation of the workforce—in particular the decline in trade union membership, which enforces appropriate standards in the workplace—is a contributory factor? I recall from my experience of working in a shipyard that the close relationship between management and trade unions was critical to ensuring a rapid and major reduction in lost work day incidents and accidents in the workplace.

Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. Trade unions have a vital role in health and safety in the workplace. We have health and safety reps, and any worker joining any place of work should join a trade union. Trade unions are not just there for pay; they are there for the protection of workers.

That brings me to enforcement and oversight. The TUC estimates that the HSE’s budget has reduced by more than 40% since 2010. That means it has £100 million less in its budget this year, which undoubtedly impacts its ability to enforce and oversee health and safety in workplaces across the UK. Concerns have been raised by groups such as Families Against Corporate Killers that those cuts to the HSE have already hampered its ability to undertake health and safety inspections.

Ahead of today’s debate I spoke to Scottish Hazards, which has researched staffing levels in the HSE. It estimates that the HSE lost more than 1,000 staff between 2010 and 2018. That means we have lost inspectors and other specialists capable of enforcing and overseeing health and safety in the workplace.

Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns expressed by National Farmers Union Scotland that the number of deaths in the agriculture sector increased by five to 13 in 2018-19? That happened despite the best efforts of the Farm Safety Foundation, the Health and Safety Executive and the NFU itself. In the UK as a whole, agriculture, forestry and fishing have the worst fatality figures of the main industrial sectors. Does he agree that the UK and Scottish Governments need to assist—

I thank the hon. Gentleman, who makes the point very clearly. A lot of migrant workers come over to work in the agriculture business. One death is too many, never mind five.

There has not been a single prosecution in Scotland under the UK Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. It is clear that it is not fit for purpose. It has failed to make our workplaces safer, as highlighted by the increase in workplace deaths in Scotland last year. My colleague Claire Baker MSP presented a Bill in the Scottish Parliament that seeks to strengthen the law. It would create two kinds of statutory culpable homicide—where death is caused “recklessly” or by “gross negligence” on the part of an employer. That is the kind of change in the law we must seriously consider if we are to deter employers from action that may jeopardise the lives of their workers.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree with Unite the union and the Scottish Trades Union Congress that the failure to devolve health and safety law to the Scottish Parliament after the Smith commission was a missed opportunity?

Yes, I will always see it as a missed opportunity. I will always support the STUC, which I have known for 30 years and does a fantastic job. I urge the Minister to review the effectiveness of the existing UK corporate homicide law and to reflect on whether there must be changes such as those proposed by Claire Baker in Scotland.

I heard one consistent theme in my discussions with organisations ahead of the debate. There is a feeling that HSE figures do not accurately reflect the number of deaths caused by work-related injuries and diseases. The Hazards campaign believes that the HSE’s figures for work-related deaths do not include workers killed in road traffic incidents or deaths from work-related diseases such as cancer, or those who took their own life because of work-related pressures. It also highlights that the HSE fails to account for work-related ill health such as heart disease and mental health issues. That certainly raises questions about whether the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations 2013 and other reporting tools are fit for purpose.

There are clearly issues with under-reporting if the labour force survey estimates that work-related injuries are at least 2.5 times higher than those reported through RIDDOR. The Hazards campaign has also raised concerns that recent changes to RIDDOR have led to a nearly 30% reduction in incidents being reported. There are clearly issues with RIDDOR failing to account fully for work-related deaths and ill health. I urge the Government to review the effectiveness of RIDDOR and other reporting tools currently used by the HSE so that we can ensure that the full scale of work-related deaths and ill health is being accurately reported.

A 70% rise in workplace deaths in Scotland is staggering. There is clearly an issue with health and safety enforcement in some sectors of the Scottish economy. I urge the Government to reflect on the issues I have raised today and to look again at the cuts made to the HSE since 2010. I call on them to review the law around corporate homicide to see whether it can be strengthened, and ask them to re-examine the effectiveness of RIDDOR and other reporting tools currently used by the HSE.

International Workers’ Memorial Day is held on 28 April every year. I thank North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council for the work it does at the memorial at Summerlee Industrial Museum in Coatbridge in my constituency every year. The gates at Summerlee are marked with the motto of the North Lanarkshire Trade Union Council:

“The past we inherit, the future we build”.

That makes us remember all those workers who have lost their lives and motivates us to campaign for better health and safety in our workplaces.

The loss of 29 lives last year in workplaces across Scotland should make all of us in this House reflect on the purpose of International Workers’ Memorial Day, which has the slogan:

“To remember the dead and fight for the living.”

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Buck. I thank the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Hugh Gaffney) for securing the debate. He spoke with real passion on a subject on which he has campaigned tirelessly for a number of years.

On 3 July, the annual workplace fatality figures for 2018-19 were published. Sadly, they showed an increase in workplace deaths in Scotland—particularly in agriculture— which is a tragedy for everyone involved, including family members and friends left behind. My sympathies and thoughts are with them. As the release of the statistics each year shows, we must continue to strive to do better. I welcome many of the constructive suggestions that the hon. Gentleman made.

Great Britain consistently has one of the lowest rates of fatal injuries in Europe and is recognised as among the best performers for occupational safety and health worldwide. Our health and safety system combines goal-setting legislation and a risk-based approach to health and safety management, to enable businesses to assess and control the risks relevant to them. That allows health and safety controls to adapt as work processes and practices change, and it enables risk management to keep pace with technological change.

Businesses know that effective health and safety management allows for innovation, enhances productivity and enables growth. That, combined with Great Britain’s long-established tripartite approach of businesses, workers and Government working together, has established our world-class health and safety record. However, we must not become complacent. We must continue to work with all involved to secure lasting improvements.

The Minister talks about Britain’s record on workplace safety. Given that, does he agree that when contracts go out to procurement, particularly in the green jobs sector, we must look at what we can do to support jobs staying locally, so that such jobs are good, local and unionised, and we can ensure that workers are protected?

It is absolutely clear that we must have that three-way approach through the Health and Safety Executive, workers and businesses to ensure that we are in the best place to maintain our proud record in this area.

In Scotland, there was an increase of 12 deaths compared with the previous year, mostly due to an increase in fatalities in the agricultural sector from three to 13. The figures for 2017-18 were particularly low, so care must be taken in drawing conclusions from those annual figures as numbers from one year to the next are subject to fluctuation. The increase is within the bounds of natural variation because of the low numbers involved.

Three of the five deaths that related to the use of all-terrain vehicles were in Scotland. Has the Minister had an opportunity to consider what might be done to better reinforce the message that people using such vehicles for farm business should be wearing helmets? What more can be done to get that message across?

My hon. Friend makes a typically constructive suggestion. As these terrible incidents happen, lessons are learned and shared and best practice is promoted. That is exactly the sort of lesson that we can push, and I know he will be a strong advocate on that.

Any death is unacceptable, so we must emphasise the importance of continuing to focus on working with businesses, workers, trade associations and others to prevent deaths by improving risk control. The primary responsibility for managing risks to people’s health and safety from work activities lies with the business or the person who creates the risk. HSE evidence shows that the key drivers of health and safety risk are industry sector, occupation and duty-holder attitude, rather than geographical location.

The regulator also plays an important part in improving standards. In cases of workplace deaths, investigation is a priority for the HSE. Through investigation, inspection and enforcement the HSE can: ensure individual businesses are managing risks properly; hold to account those who have failed in their statutory duties; and learn the lessons that play into industry to ensure that health and safety management continues to improve across the country. In practice, that means that during an investigation the regulator may take enforcement action to address conditions found on site. Following an investigation, there may be prosecution action in England and Wales, and in Scotland a recommendation to prosecute may be presented to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service.

Outcomes of investigations and prosecutions form the base of communications activity to highlight our expectations and have an educational and deterrent effect across businesses. Finally, lessons learned are discussed with industry stakeholders and, as necessary, fed into new or existing guidance to drive future improvement.

Analysis of incidents shows us that the main causes of fatal injuries to workers by industry sector are the same whether in Scotland, England or Wales. In agriculture, they include workplace transport, falls from a height and being killed by cattle. In construction, over half of all fatal injuries to workers over the last five years across Great Britain resulted from falls from a height. Factors contributing to fatal accidents across all industries include a lack of planning, training, maintenance and understanding of risk as well as poor risk management. The sad thing is that, as the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill mentioned, those causes are well known, as are the steps that can be taken to prevent them. There is much good guidance available from the HSE and industry that cover them.

In February 2016, the “Helping Great Britain Work Well” strategy, aimed at improving health and safety across Great Britain, was launched. I was pleased to write the foreword, which highlighted that we need to act together and help businesses to manage their risks well. The regulators cannot do it all, but the HSE will continue to work with businesses, workers and stakeholders to promote better working practices to protect workers.

The Minister is being generous in giving way. In agricultural deaths, there has been a demographic shift towards people aged over 60. Is that true generally of reported workplace deaths? What does he believe might be a root cause of that startling statistic?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I will have to write to him to give more details. As I said earlier, we cannot stand still. Industry innovation, technology and workplace demographics are changing and we must always be on the front foot. The improvement of working practices has included the development of specific sector plans to drive improvements across agriculture, construction and other industries.

I turn to the key work taking place in Scotland to improve health and safety at work outcomes, particularly in agriculture. Industry-wide, the HSE chairs the Partnership on Health and Safety in Scotland, which brings together Scottish business and trade union representatives with the Scottish Government to work to improve businesses’ management of health and safety. The HSE’s agriculture sector plan recognises the challenges in changing attitudes and behaviours in the industry. A reduction in fatal injury rates is one of the three outcomes identified, through securing effective management of risk.

As part of Farm Safety Partnership Scotland, the HSE is working with the National Farmers Union Scotland, NFU Mutual and the Scottish Government to ensure that partners focus their activities on driving improvements in the management of risk. The HSE will continue to work with stakeholders to find opportunities to reduce fatal accidents in Scottish agriculture. I urge all parties involved in Farm Safety Partnership Scotland to really step up to the plate and deliver the further cultural change required to improve health and safety on Scottish farms.

The Minister talks about the Health and Safety Executive. Will he ask the new Prime Minister to put more money into it?

We are already world-leading, and the new Prime Minister will continue everything that is great about this country. I am sure that he will take particular interest in how we are recognised for our achievement in the area, and rightly so.

The HSE has commissioned research to gain a better understanding of farmers’ attitudes to risk and risk-taking behaviour. From that research, a programme of interventions has been developed, including HSE-funded training known as agricultural compliance events. The training includes management of the risks of the most common causes of fatal injury on farms. The events are followed up by inspections to ensure compliance. To date, approximately 500 Scottish farmers have attended the events.

The HSE has also developed new guidance targeted at influencing those farmers who are unclear about how to manage risk and are most likely to have an incident at work. From that work, the key actions that the HSE is taking with the agriculture sector to improve standards are challenging the industry to take ownership of issues, developing shared solutions to known problems, and delivering consistent actions and messages.

In the construction sector, performance has improved over the past decade, and the number and rate of fatal incidents shows a long-term downward trend. An important vehicle for driving continuing construction improvements is Site Safe Scotland, a well-established tripartite partnership that works on improving health and safety on Scottish construction projects. Trade unions, major construction employers, training providers and the HSE support campaigns and initiatives across the country, such as the Scottish Working Well Together group.

The HSE wants to see a continuation of the downward trend in fatal accidents in construction, which will be tackled by embedding the principles of the Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015; supporting small businesses to achieve improved risk management and control; reducing the likelihood of low-frequency, high-impact catastrophic incidents such as fires or structural collapse by making early and strategic interventions in major projects; and developing clear standards of construction risk leadership and leading performance indicators.

The HSE works with Police Scotland, the Scottish Occupational Road Safety Alliance and others as part of a national campaign on the causes of fatalities in the transport sector, such as during loading and unloading, when workplace fatalities and injuries may occur as a result of poorly loaded and poorly secured goods.

I am pleased that we have been able to debate this important issue and highlight some of the common causes of workplace fatal injuries. The HSE will continue to engage with businesses and stakeholders in Scotland, as it will in England and Wales. It uses a range of regulatory actions, from influencing behaviours across whole industry sectors to making targeted interventions in particular sectors and activities. It will continue to hold to account those businesses that fail in their responsibilities to protect workers. While the increase this year in workers’ deaths in agriculture is troubling, it is time not to change direction, but rather to continue to work together to reinforce the changes needed to safeguard workers’ lives.

Once again, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill for securing the debate, and to other hon. Members for their excellent contributions. On any points that I have not been able to address during my speech, I will write with further details. I remind all colleagues that the HSE takes the issue incredibly seriously. Speaking in a personal capacity, having worked with the HSE for several years, I have been really impressed with how willing it is to engage with individual MPs. I have attended meetings of a number of all-party parliamentary groups that focus on particular areas of its work, where I have seen its technical knowledge and its willingness to challenge, adapt and work with all organisations, businesses, trade unions, stakeholders and Governments. In this area, we are world-leading.

The figures are disappointing, and I genuinely feel for all the families, but there is a real cross-party commitment to continue to do everything we can in this important area. I thank the hon. Gentleman again for his very constructive speech.

Question put and agreed to.