The announcement coincides with a new report, published in Hazards magazine, that highlights how at the same time HSE is implementing its new strategy to move away from hands-on workplace inspections, figures for fatalities and major injury rates across the UK are rising.
In a notice to staff, HSE chief executive Geoffrey Podger said the move to reduce the total number of staff by between 250 and 350 posts by 2008 and cut programme spend was necessary to remain in budget.
But Prospect fears that this will only be the tip of the iceberg coming on the back of real terms cuts in HSE’s budget since 2002, and in the face of likely further cuts given the 5% reduction target identified for its parent body, the Department of Work and Pensions, in the last comprehensive spending review.
Prospect HSE branch chair Steven Kay said: "While we welcome the commitment to try to achieve these losses through natural wastage and voluntary redundancies, any reduction in HSE staff numbers will inevitably impact on the drive to improve safety in UK workplaces. Evidence shows it is inspection backed by enforcement that is the most effective way of ensuring employers comply with their health and safety responsibilities.
"It will result in a drop in the number of prosecutions and inspections undertaken and could see a further restriction of the accident selection criteria used to prompt an investigation as HSE tries to maintain the 60:40 balance it seeks to strike between preventive and reactive work. Less investigations will mean workers that suffer horrendous injuries will not get justice."
HSE programmes also identified as casualties of the cutbacks include measures introduced as part of the executive’s strategic shift away from inspection and enforcement in favour of education and preventative advice, announced in 2003.
The Hazards report shows that even before this latest blow, the time spent by HSE staff in direct contact with employers has fallen in all of HSE’s divisions bar one despite a growth in the number of workplaces. In 2001/02 the average frequency of workplace inspections was once every seven years. Figures for 2006 suggest this has risen to every 13 years.
While HSE’s Hazardous Installation Division (HID) bucked the trend, Hazards attributes this to the "HID inspection and investigation surge after the December 2005 Buncfield explosion."
Prospect members in HSE anticipate a corresponding crash in activity over the coming year, as inspectors take related time-off-in-lieu, overtime payments drain budgets further and inspectors are seconded from other divisions to meet the shortfall. The union is calling for government intervention to reduce the financial pressure crippling HSE.
To view the Hazards report visit Hazards report or contact the editor, Rory O’Neill on 01535 210462.