U.K.: Union Worries HSE is 'Under-Resourced'

A union representing more than 1,700 inspectors, scientists and other professionals who work for the U.K. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) claims that the agency is "too under-resourced to operate efficiently."

According to Prospect – the largest union in the United Kingdom representing professional engineers, scientists and other professionals – government job-cuts in HSE's Corporate Medical Unit will be detrimental to workplace safety in the United Kingdom. The Corporate Medical Unit is a department of biomedical and medical specialists responsible for providing advice and guidance on minimizing the health risks associated with what HSE calls "physical agents" (such as noise, vibration and friction).

According to the union, the number of medical personnel in the unit, formerly known as the Employment Medical Advisory Service, has dwindled from 120 workers in the early 1990s to seven full-time doctors working as medical inspectors and 25 nurses working as occupational health inspectors.

The union has stated that the medical unit needs to be properly staffed in order to combat work-related health problems.

"The government wants to create workplaces where we both protect the health and well-being of employees and reduce the costs of sickness absence," said Steven Kay, chair of Prospect's HSE branch. "At the same time they want to enable people to improve their own health and well-being. Yet these good intentions require action to become reality; the levels of activity funded to achieve this border on complacency."

Union: Problem is Underestimated

According to Kay, "the true size of the problem has been underestimated." For example, Kay asserted that official figures for work-related cancers are based on old surveys that put workplace cancer mortality at 4 percent of all cancer deaths. More-recent estimates, however, suggest that deaths could be as high as 12 percent or 18,000 deaths.

Similarly, HSE's own statistics suggest that there are around 156,000 people with "breathing or lung problems." However, the group Asthma U.K. claims that as many as 1.75 million people have work-related asthma.

The union has called for the Corporate Medical Unit to take on the following roles:

  • Develop standards for occupational health service provision on a generic basis, with more-specific standards in high-risk industries;
  • Engage with occupational health specialists to raise awareness and promote standards;
  • Monitor the provision of occupational health services;
  • Oversee the standard of provision; and
  • Contribute to policy formulation in HSE and within the wider government Health, Work and Well-Being agenda.

As for the medical unit's organizational structure, Prospect proposes that there should be a chief medical officer to head the entire unit and three senior medical inspectors and two medical inspectors in every region in England, Wales and Scotland.

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