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Waste and Recycling Industry: Accidents and Deaths

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 10 October 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What further actions they will take to reduce the incidence of workplace accidents and deaths in the waste and recycling industry.

My Lords, in 2001-02, the rate of injury in the industry was four times the national average. In meeting its target to reduce the rate by 25 per cent by 2010, the Health and Safety Executive is delivering a programme of inspection, enforcement, communication and research to help this growing industry operate more safely.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Given the centrality of the waste and recycling industries and the need to meet important government environmental targets and given that the fatality rate is 10 times above the national average while the non-fatal rate is four times that, what more can my noble friend do to build on the 2004 HSE report concerning this industry to reduce that unacceptably high number of accidents?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to suggest that this is a growing industry. Certainly the baseline figures for 2001-02 show that the waste industry has very high, unacceptable accident rates. As I said in my Answer, the executive has set a target for reducing those rates through a combination of encouragement and advice to the industry, alongside a proactive campaign of inspection and enforcement. Although I do not have official figures in relation to the baseline figure, work by the Environmental Services Association suggests that accident rates have reduced. That does not give room for complacency—we need to build on it—but it looks as though we are now moving in the right direction.

My Lords, a particular concern is the number of fatal accidents that occur in scrap yards. Major accidents have also been caused during household collections when operatives cross pavements and streets. With scrap yards, one is often dealing with fairly small businesses. The trade association, working with the HSE, is developing a passport to encourage staff to be trained. We need to do more of that. There is also a big need to train vehicle operatives to try to reduce the number of such incidents.

My Lords, the BOMEL report found that where a team was dealing with the complex area of waste—separation, and so on, means that it is becoming increasingly complex—the rate of accidents fell when there was a competent and experienced team leader. Will the Minister ensure that one of the criteria for inspection is that teams contain an adequately trained and competent team leader?

My Lords, that is an important consideration. The targeted action that the HSE is developing is focused on local authorities as one sector that has a big role to play. There is an existing duty in law for all staff to undergo training, but the structure of the industry is such that it could be very brief and inadequate. Alongside regulation enforcement, we need to do everything we can to encourage the industry to ensure that team leaders and operatives are properly trained and risk-assessed.

My Lords, given that the waste and recycling industry is ever-increasing and will undoubtedly employ more and more people in the future, how confident is my noble friend that the Health and Safety Executive will succeed in reducing the figure by 25 per cent by its target date of 2010?

My Lords, my noble friend is right: the sector is growing, and government policy encourages that. I have one estimate that employment in the sector may grow by 80 per cent between 2004 and 2014. Clearly, while the growth is very encouraging, we have to ensure that it is not at the expense of health and safety.

My noble friend asks how confident I am that we will meet the target. I will resist saying that I am very confident, but I am satisfied that the Health and Safety Executive sees this as a priority. The signals from the Environmental Services Association show that the issue is beginning to be gripped, but we cannot be complacent. With so many new people coming in to the sector, it is very important that we get training up to scratch.

My Lords, the House will rightly have been horrified at the figures given by the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Harrison. Is there a difference in the rate of fatal and serious accidents in this sector between local authority direct labour organisations and the private sector? Furthermore, what is the Minister’s response to UNISON’s claims that the HSE is moving its efforts towards more advice and less enforcement?

My Lords, I am not aware of a split in the statistics, but I will see if there are any and let the noble Lord know. On the HSE’s approach to enforcement, figures have shown that inspections and enforcement actions have reduced in the past year or so. The key is whether the strategy of the HSE—a combination of working with industry, encouraging it to improve its health and safety record and using inspection and enforcement as the big stick alongside the carrot of encouragement—in the end produces a better performance. The signals are that it does; the construction industry is probably the best example of where this has worked. Over the past five years, there has been a 25 per cent reduction in fatal accidents, partly as a result of targeted enforcement and partly because the industry has worked closely with the HSE. We would like to see the same happen with the waste sector.