SAFETY CRIMES ‘FILTERED OUT’ says report

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Construction workers lobbying parliament on the day of a private members Bill to hold directors of companies where there are deaths in the workplace be held to account – the Bill was not passed as not enough MPs turned up to vote
Construction workers lobbying parliament on the day of a private members Bill to hold directors of companies where there are deaths in the workplace be held to account – the Bill was not passed as not enough MPs turned up to vote

At least twice as many people die from fatal injuries at work than are victims of homicide, a new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies suggests.

The report, launched in parliament on Tuesday, found that at least 1,300 people died as a result of fatal occupational injuries in 2005-06 in England and Wales, compared with 765 homicide victims.

Non-fatal workplace injuries requiring hospitalisation were also likely to be greater that year than those needing such treatment following the violent offences formally recorded as crimes.

The report, A crisis of enforcement, argues that the recent trend towards the ‘light touch’ regulation of business has in effect ‘decriminalised’ death and injury at work.

Serious incidents are significantly under-reported, the authors claim.

A reduction in the capacity of bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) to inspect business and take appropriate action has led to a situation where the vast majority of the most serious injuries, as well as many deaths, are not subject to any form of investigation.

This raises a number of important questions, the authors argue, about whether the current policy preoccupation with ‘conventional’ crimes such as homicide, street violence and theft should be complemented by a much greater focus on workplace crimes and harms.

Professor Steve Tombs, a report author, said: ‘Violent street crime consumes enormous political, media and academic energy.

‘But, as hundreds of thousands of workers and their families know, it is the violence associated with working for a living that is most likely to kill and hospitalise.’

Dr David Whyte, a report author, said: ‘HSE enforcement notices fell by 40% and prosecutions fell by 49% between 2001/02 and 2005/06.

‘The collapse in HSE enforcement and prosecution sends a clear message that the government is prepared to let employers kill and maim with impunity.’

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said: ‘Safety crimes are worthy of greater acknowledgement given the harm caused and the contexts within which they occur.

‘This research raises important questions about what is currently defined as crime, who gets to decide, and how we as a society deal with harmful and dangerous practices.’

The report says: ‘While we know that there are a whole series of social processes which obscure and recast safety crimes, their construction as something to be acted on and counted – not by police forces, nor by the Home Office, nor by the Scottish Government but by regulatory agencies – crucially reinforces the idea that safety crimes are not “real” crimes.’

Under the heading ‘filtering out safety crimes’ it continues: ‘Of course, not all injuries, fatal or otherwise, are crimes, and, as we shall see, certainly the vast majority are never treated formally as such by the criminal justice system.

‘That said, we also know that the vast majority of these injuries do involve violations of law. HSE evidence, for example, consistently finds that, despite the lack of formal enforcement activity, more than two-thirds of injuries to workers are the result of managements failing to meet their legal duties under criminal law (Pearce and Tombs, 1998:152-4).’

It warns that the ‘processes of reporting and recording combine to filter out the majority of deaths and injuries from the official figures.

‘A second filter arises when a decision is made about whether to investigate, or not, as the case may be.

‘There is no way of knowing how many recorded deaths, injuries or dangerous occurrences are actually investigated, since those investigation figures are published by the HSE on a highly selective basis.

‘However, research by the Centre for Corporate Accountability (Unison/CCA, 2002) found that, in a five-year period, 75 worker deaths and 212 deaths of members of the public were not investigated.

‘Subsequent research found that, in 2006/7, only 10.5% of major injuries resulted in an investigation by the HSE.

‘Thus, 89.5% remain uninvestigated, including: 62% of all amputations; 70% of all asphyxiations and poisonings; 78% of all burns; 57% of all electrocutions; and 91% of all temporary or permanent blindness (CCA, 2008).

‘A third filter comes in when a decision is made about whether or not to initiate any form of enforcement action.

‘When inspectors come across breaches of the law and they decide to act on those breaches, prosecution is used much less readily than other types of enforcement action.

‘Applying a very rough and ready reckoner, the ratio of administrative (improvement and prohibition) notices to prosecutions is 7:1.5. If injuries are investigated, then only 11% of those investigations will result in prosecution (Unison/CCA, 2002).

‘An internal audit undertaken by the HSE in July 2006 provides a rare and revealing picture of how the HSE assesses its prosecution practice.

‘Of 126 randomly selected investigations, only seven resulted in prosecutions.

‘Yet the audit concluded that 19 should have been prosecuted.

‘The incidents that should have been prosecuted, but were not, included one death, six major injuries, two over three-day injuries and two dangerous occurrences (HSE, 2006).

‘In short, we can conclude from this review of the available evidence that most safety crimes – including many of the most serious crimes – remain undetected.

‘If they are detected, they are likely to be filtered out by the processes we describe here.’

The report stresses: ‘The decriminalisation of safety crimes can only be fully understood within its political context.

‘Within the current political context there are two tendencies at play which particularly influence these processes of decriminalisation.

‘First, there has been a consistent erosion of HSE staffing numbers that we can pinpoint to the beginning of the second Blair government (see Figure 1).

‘In each of the years following 2001-2002, the HSE began to face real-terms cuts in funding from the government’s grant-in-aid budget.

‘The HSE is grossly under-staffed. At its peak, in 1994, the number of HSE staff in post was 4,545.

‘Since that time, numbers have fluctuated, but there has been a clear decline in the total number of staff employed by HSE since 2001-2002.

‘On 1 April 2002 there were 4,282 staff in post and on 1 April 2006 there were 3,991 staff in post. Of those staff, 1,548 are currently deployed as frontline inspectors (there were 1,625 on 1 April 2002).

‘To put this in perspective, the number of frontline HSE inspectors equates to less than 9% of the number of new police community support officers that the government has pledged to fund by the end of 2008.

‘The steady erosion of HSE resources has certainly had an impact on the morale of the organisation and its confidence to lobby government for the resources it needs.’

The report says: ‘The position adopted by senior management at the HSE appears even more remarkable in the context of debates on resources for policing.

‘It is difficult to imagine any police officer in any police force area in the country relinquishing a claim to more officers or a larger budget – despite the fact that numbers of police officers are at an all-time high.’