Being a populist is easy. All you have to do is pick whatever particular bugbear is being demonised in the press, say it appears to have “gone too far”, quote a few examples clipped from years old newspapers, then give yourself a get out clause where you admit that “there are some benefits” but conclude that you will shear away the bad and leave the good, while not being particularly clear about how you will do that.
If you want modern British conservatism in a nutshell, that’s about it. So it’s no surprise David Cameron gave a speech attacking Health and Safety laws today. Where Clarkson leads, so follows Cameron.
So yes, I’m against people applying rules in non-common sense ways. So are we all. But it frustrates me to read a political leader talk this kind of lazy populism, when they could do better.
So lets look at what’s really happening at work.
Ten years ago, nearly forty million days a year were lost to work related ill health and injuries. Now it’s just under thirty million.
So we’ve got ten million days less of people being off work because they were injured, or hurt or sick from something they had to do at work. Even if we halve that, taking the most conservative approach to the data imaginable, then that’s over twelve thousand years of workplace injury that’s been lost in the last decade.
Think about that for a moment.Twelve. Thousand. years. of people not being injured, or in pain. Twelve thousand years of extra productivity in the economy and less hassle for managers and small business owners.
But all right, that’s not all due to “Health and Safety” of course not. Some of it is better A&E treatment, fewer cancelled GP appointments, more efficient working practices, that sort of thing.
So let’s just look at major injuries and deaths. More serious injuries – those that left the worker off work for three days or more – are down by over a third in ten years.
As for the most serious injuries at work – so called “fatal or major injuries”, well in 1999, 116 workers in every hundred thousand suffered a fatal or major injury. This year, the number is 105 per hundred thousand.
And looking at the most serious category of all – deaths at work – the numbers show a decline, with 129 employees dying in 2008/9 compared to 183 in 2002/3. worryingly, the exception to this is amongst the self employed, where the death rate has remained steady, while falling amongst employees.*
In any debate about Health and Safety, you would think that such changes, would play a major role in the discussion of whether regulation was worthwhile, even if the first task is to question whether regulation was a cause or a coincidence for low injury and sickness rates.
But we don’t get that.
Instead we get a debate in which populist millionaire PR men use myths peddled by populist millionaire broadcasters to tell other people that they’re better off without protections at work.
* To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with making too much of the fatalites data. The 2008/9 figures are much lower than recent years, and I suspect that this is as much to do with lower rates of construction work (the biggest killer) in a recession as anything . However, death rates at work are showing a steady, gradual decline over years, so the general point remains true.