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Crystal ball gazing – Health and Safety in 2024 and beyond

At some point in 2024 there will be a general election and, based on current opinion polls, the outcome is likely to be a change in Government.

In its most recent Annual Report, titled “Protecting People and Places”, the Health and Safety Executive (‘HSE’) set out the five key objectives which will form its strategic focus from 2022-2032, namely:

  • reduce work-related ill health, with a specific focus on mental health and stress
  • increase and maintain trust to ensure people feel safe where they live, where they work, and in their environment
  • enable industry to innovate safely to prevent major incidents, supporting the move towards net zero
  • maintain Great Britain’s record as one of the safest countries to work in
  • ensure HSE is a great place to work, and we attract and retain exceptional people.

The last point is important and interesting, as anecdotally one hears of morale being low – and the report itself points to year one objectives in relation to staffing engagement and staff sickness levels being missed.  

The report boasts of a high level of conviction, (94% of cases), following prosecution, and outlines impressive numbers of investigations and proactive inspections, from which it is clear that inspectors remain busy and effective. However, on the ground, many of us have experienced more cases, (sometimes involving serious injury), going un-investigated despite timely reporting, and we have seen investigations in the most serious cases taking rather longer than we have come to expect in the past. The impression is of a service which remains committed but finds that its resources are stretched, with a time-poor workforce striving to reach ambitious objectives.

If that is correct, one might anticipate an increasing focus on ensuring that future enforcement activity is targeted on the areas of greatest emerging concern, and those where the impact of the message or publicity following a conviction will have the most powerful impact. 

At some point in 2024 there will be a general election and, based on current opinion polls, the outcome is likely to be a change in Government. Perhaps surprisingly, the Labour Party’s list of pledges following the last conference season made little reference to health and safety in the workplace, with no pledges to bolster the ranks of the HSE leaping from the page. However, both the Labour Party and the HSE have begun to emphasise the importance of the ESG agenda more widely, which sits neatly with the anticipated shift in focus towards the wellbeing of those at work.

The ongoing downward trend in the number of workplace fatalities and accidents is obviously welcome, and will perhaps leave more room for inspectors to focus upon the first strategic objective by placing greater emphasis on issues around occupational ill health and, in particular, mental health.  Long gone are the days when employers would focus on the provision of PPE, guarding machinery, and preventing trips and slips, (although all of those things remain important, of course). Looking ahead, there is a greater need than ever before to ensure that the wider health and wellbeing of employees is being managed effectively.

In terms of prosecution activity, as safety has improved and employers’ standards have generally risen, many expect the appetite for prosecuting culpable individuals to increase as a means of reminding or encouraging others to maintain high personal standards. In the past, there has been an impression that failings by an individual must ultimately reflect shortcomings on the part of the employer – but to blame the employer when individuals have been indolent, or turned a blind eye, or wilfully neglected their own training, has sometimes missed the point and sent an unfortunate message. 

Whether a shift towards more action against individuals begins in 2024 or beyond, an increase in prosecutions based on Section 7 and Section 37 of the 1974 Act would not be surprising. In turn, that is likely to lead to more individuals requiring separate representation, and will increase the existing onus on lawyers to identify potential conflicts of interest, (between employer and potentially culpable employees), at the earliest opportunity.

2024 is unlikely to see a material change in the number of prosecutions or the conviction rate, but it may be the year when the focus shifts towards the management of health, (over and above the management of safety), and when greater personal accountability becomes apparent.

For more information please contact our health and safety solicitors.

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