European Week for Safety and Health

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:02 pm on 30th October 2003.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:02 pm, 30th October 2003

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-442, in the name of Karen Gillon, on European week for safety and health. The debate will be concluded without any questions being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes that the European Week for Safety and Health will take place between 13 and 19 October 2003; welcomes the week's acknowledgement of the need to promote safety and health in the workplace; congratulates trade unions for the role that they have played in improving health and safety in the workplace, and commends the commitment of the European Agency for Safety and Health and the Health and Safety Executive to promote safe and healthy working.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 5:09 pm, 30th October 2003

I am pleased to bring to the chamber this debate on European week for safety and health at work. It is a matter that affects us all as workers and, given Scotland's comparatively poor record, it is one that we must continue to address in the chamber. This is not the first time that health and safety has been discussed in Parliament, but it is important that we recognise the changes that have happened and look forward to what else we can do to improve standards of health and safety in Scotland.

European week for safety and health at work for 2003 has focused on hazardous substances. Nearly all workers, from painters to farmers to hairdressers, have regular contact with hazardous substances. It is therefore important that people are aware of the risks that can be associated with certain substances. The importance of supplying and using protective clothing can never be underestimated. The knowledge that we now have about how harmful substances such as asbestos can be to the health of the work force shows the importance of having up-to-date research. We need to provide the best available information to everyone in the workplace.

However, instead of concentrating on hazardous materials, I want to focus on health and safety in general. We need to improve awareness, support and the rehabilitation of staff who have been affected. If necessary, we need to prosecute those who are responsible for placing the health and safety of Scottish workers at risk. In 2001-02, 11,954 work-related injuries were reported to the Health and Safety Executive in Scotland, including 32 fatal accidents. Those figures do not take into account work-related illnesses or injuries that were not reported. It is clear from the figures that far too many Scottish workers continue to be injured at work. We must continue to consider how we can improve those statistics and the health and safety of people in the workplace.

I put on record and pay tribute to the role of the trade unions in bringing about many of the changes that we have seen across Scotland and across industries. At times, employers have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into making changes—as, indeed, Governments have had to be dragged kicking and screaming into introducing the appropriate legislation—but it has been worth it. We in Scotland should never be in the position where profit is placed ahead of the safety of our work force.

The motion is closely linked to two other issues that I have raised in Parliament: the attacks on emergency services staff, which we debated last September and which was later taken forward by my colleague Paul Martin, and corporate killing, which I hope we will discuss before long. To some extent, both those issues are concerned with health and safety in the workplace. Members will also be aware that Transco is currently facing charges under the health and safety legislation following the deaths of the Findlay family in Larkhall in December 1999. I will not comment further on that as I do not wish to prejudice the on-going legal proceedings, but the fact that the company could not be prosecuted for culpable homicide is a gap in our legal system.

Responsibility for legislation on health and safety in the workplace is reserved, so we are limited in the action that we can take. In March 2000, the Parliament debated a report on the Scottish safety anomaly. The then Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Nicol Stephen, offered little support on how the Scottish Executive could improve health and safety at work. I hope that the current deputy minister will offer something more concrete this afternoon.

It is clear that there is scope for the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Executive to make a contribution. In fact, the Scottish Executive has moved forward by establishing the Scotland's health at work scheme—or SHAW—which brings together national health service boards, NHS Health Scotland, the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, Scottish Enterprise, the Confederation of British Industry, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the Scottish Executive. By doing that, the Executive has shown that improvements can be made when all the stakeholders work together. I understand that, as of January of this year, 27.9 per cent of the work force participated in SHAW. I would be interested to know from the minister whether that figure has increased over the year and what steps the Executive is taking to increase participation. The Executive also funds the safe and healthy working initiative, which is a new occupational health and safety service for those in small and medium-sized enterprises. Again, I would be grateful to know from the minister how that initiative is being developed.

The initiatives that the Executive has implemented, along with work that has been done by the HSE and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, have managed to improve standards recently and should be commended. However, we are still behind the rest of the United Kingdom in our health and safety record. That is simply not good enough. If we are serious about improving health and safety, we must consider what more can be done.

There is a call for a more strategic approach to improving health and safety in Scottish workplaces. Instead of funding small packages from a variety of sources, the Scottish Executive could implement a single strategy that would oversee, regulate and impose health and safety standards. Such a strategy could provide education on occupational health issues to the general public, employers and employees and could work in conjunction with the Scottish Parliament when relevant legislation is being considered.

The main objective of such a strategy would be to improve the health and safety of individual workers and to raise the general standard of health and safety in Scotland. Nobody would deny that that would not be a good thing. However, there would be another major advantage, which is that the Scottish economy would undoubtedly benefit from reduced absenteeism, increased productivity and an overall healthier work force.

As I mentioned earlier, the Scottish Executive is already involved in health and safety. As it is possible for the Executive to fund health and safety initiatives through its Health Department, it might be possible for it to further develop its role in this field. There are European examples of how that could be done. I encourage the Executive to explore these matters along with other bodies such as the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

The most important thing is to improve health and safety and in turn prevent injury and illness. By stopping occupational accidents, we can save the time, money and effort that are involved in rehabilitation and return to work, not to mention compensation. We need to improve the information and advice that are given to employers and employees. Advice about their responsibilities and legal requirements should be made available more freely.

It might sound clichéd, but in my experience education on the basics of workplace health and safety could have prevented the vast majority of minor accidents that have occurred over the past few years. We need to do more to provide that sort of information to people when they enter the work force and continue to update it as they go through their working lives. Health and safety practices will change over time and people need to be reminded about them.

Just to be controversial towards the end of my speech, I encourage the Executive to look again at enabling the NHS to reclaim from insurance companies the cost of treatment in personal injuries cases. The figure involved amounts to around £8 million per year, which could be reinvested in the provision of appropriate services. If the NHS were also able to reclaim the cost of treatment of work-related illnesses, a considerable amount of money could be made available. The idea seems worthy of exploration in the medium to long term.

In conclusion, I thank all the members who have stayed tonight. Once again, I pay tribute to all those who are committed to improving the health and safety of all our work force. I encourage the Scottish Executive to continue to do more to improve the health and safety of all our citizens.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

Eight members have indicated that they wish to speak in the debate. It should be possible for everyone to speak.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 5:17 pm, 30th October 2003

I congratulate Karen Gillon on securing this evening's important debate. I will begin by declaring an interest. I am the president of the Tayside industrial safety association, which is an important organisation that does a lot of good work. Some of its work is to bring together local businesses and public sector bodies to ensure that they are up to speed with the most recent legislation and to share good practice.

I attended a recent lecture that the association held on an employer's responsibility to provide its pregnant women workers with adequate ante-natal and post-natal care. It was extremely interesting to hear about the detail of the responsibility on employers from the very early stages of someone's pregnancy. I am certain that there are many employers who are not complying with their responsibilities in that area although provision should be being made.

The debate raises awareness about the importance of health and safety through a recognition of European week for safety and health. It also raises awareness about the important role of improving health and safety in the workplace. Although we have come a long way, we have a long way still to go. As Karen Gillon mentioned, there are still unacceptable levels of workplace accidents, with more than 11,000 work-related accidents taking place in Scotland in one year. There is no room for complacency.

Unison has done a fair bit of work in the area, including the recent production of a new report on the subject. Dave Watson, who is Unison's Scottish organiser for policy and information, said:

"Although in Scotland the level of results were better than down south, the targets set for local authority inspections are not always met, and the levels of HSE inspections here tend to be much lower than elsewhere in the UK. Employers in some other parts of the UK often have no real incentive to comply with regulations because there is no chance that they will get caught, investigated or prosecuted."

We cannot rest on our laurels in Scotland. The days of workers' lives being put at risk every day that they went to their work are thankfully over and robust legislation is now in place. However, tragic events still happen far too often—whether it is the death of workers on our oil rigs or accidents in the construction industry.

There is no room for complacency and there is always room for improvement. That will be achieved through keeping up the pressure on employers, whether they are in the public or the private sector. I look forward to hearing what the minister thinks the Scottish Executive can do to play its part in achieving that.

Photo of Cathy Peattie Cathy Peattie Labour 5:21 pm, 30th October 2003

I thank Karen Gillon for bringing this important debate to Parliament. I also welcome European week for safety and health and I take this opportunity to thank the trade union movement for keeping this important issue high on the agenda.

Health and safety is an issue for workers throughout the world. While we consider what we could do to save lives and avoid injuries and work-related illnesses, we need to talk a bit more about Scotland.

As Karen Gillon said, there is a Scottish safety anomaly. That term was coined by academics several years ago and recent statistics show that it still exists. There were 36 fatal injuries to workers in Scotland in 2000-01, which is five more than there were the year before. Although there was a larger increase in Great Britain overall, Scotland still remains above average for Britain. In particular, Scotland has a higher rate of fatal injury in the construction and service industries.

We have a particular problem in Scotland. There were 2,720 major injuries to employees in Scotland in 2000-01, which is about the same as in the previous year. It is worth noting that the figures are subject to significant under-reporting. Surveys suggest that only 43 per cent of non-fatal reportable accidents are reported in Scotland. The worst sector is agriculture, in which only 17 per cent of such accidents are reported. England and Wales have 100 per cent reporting; Scotland has 61 per cent reporting. As for the self-employed, fewer than one in 20 reportable injuries is recorded.

The anomaly is not only a poorer record of accidents but a poorer record of enforcement. The average fine per conviction last year was just over £4,000 in Scotland, but it was over £7,000 in Britain as a whole. The figures for Britain remain considerably higher than the Scottish ones and that has also been the case in previous years. Furthermore, in Scotland, only 138 out of 238 charges resulted in convictions. That is a poorer success rate than in Great Britain as a whole, which last year secured 1,402 convictions from 1,908 charges.

When concerns about health and safety are raised in the Scottish Parliament, we are reminded that health and safety is a reserved issue and therefore outwith the remit of the Scottish Parliament. However, the current structure is failing to improve the situation for Scottish workers. The reverse may be the case as the danger is that current plans to alter court jurisdictions are likely to result in many personal injury claims being heard by sheriff courts. Decisions by less-expert sheriffs will do little to improve the situation in Scotland.

I believe that we need a Scottish commission for health and safety. That would not replace the national commission but would work with the STUC, employers and the Health and Safety Executive to promote good practice, highlight weaknesses and be active in all matters relating to health and safety in Scotland. The commission would have a clear view to consider health and safety throughout Scotland. It would be independent, but it would have statutory status and would report to the Scottish Parliament. It would not be an enforcing body but would have the power to conduct investigations. I ask the Scottish Executive to consider that suggestion and to work with the STUC and others to work towards a safer Scotland for workers.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 5:25 pm, 30th October 2003

I must say to Cathy Peattie that I do not see that health and safety is specifically a reserved matter—it is a matter of great concern to all members. Indeed, we all have a responsibility to our staff and for the conditions under which they work.

I refer to the European week for safety and health. Health and safety do not relate to any one week; they relate to every day, hour and second that we work in whatever workplace and, perhaps even more, in our homes. When we analyse accidents, we find that one of the most dangerous situations in which to carry out work is on our own in our home. We should all take that on board.

On the European aspect, just as health and safety has no boundaries in time, it has no geographical boundaries. I sympathise with the people in Russia who have recently been through horrendous times with mining incidents in the past few weeks. I am sure that all members' sympathy goes out to those who were involved in those incidents.

I take marginal exception to the motion, in that it mentions the unions but not the employers. Shona Robison mentioned the sterling efforts of employers in trying to keep up reduction of accidents in their workplaces. She mentioned the private and public sectors' coming together—in their own time, no doubt—in the organisation of which she is president. That is an indication of a commitment by employers to trying to do something about the health and safety records of their companies and groups.

I go back to my experiences of employer involvement in the 1960s when I worked in the power industry. At that time, we had group schemes to try to encourage a situation in which accidents did not happen in dangerous work spaces. In one scheme, various groups were created within the power station. Their objective was to go a full year without a reportable accident. To be honest, we had reportable accidents, and few groups made the full year, but one group—of which I was lucky to be a part—managed a trip to a theatre in Glasgow as a reward for our compliance with the regulations to the extent that there were no accidents.

I acknowledge Cathy Peattie's point about some of the industries that deserve special attention, in particular agriculture and construction. The construction industry has moved a long way. It has its safety representatives on the ground floor and they constantly watch the work force, but often the work force is prepared to take the stupid risks that end in disaster.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

No—he is in his last minute.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

I am sorry. I would have liked to take that intervention.

I will mention members' responsibilities. I am on the health and safety committee that the Parliament has set up and I am conscious that MSPs and their staff do not seem to be aware of the health and safety situation in the Parliament building or out in the sticks, where we have our constituency offices. When we run induction courses, the Parliament and we MSPs have a responsibility to make our staff aware and to ensure that our offices are safe for them and for us.

Photo of Michael Matheson Michael Matheson Scottish National Party 5:29 pm, 30th October 2003

I begin by congratulating Karen Gillon on securing time for the debate. Despite her concerns about its being in the Thursday afternoon slot, I am sure that the attendance reflects members' concerns about health and safety. I especially welcome the fact that we are holding the debate around the time of the European week for safety and health, although it ought to be said that every week should be a health and safety week.

I pay tribute to the trade unions for the efforts that they have made in pursuing the Government to implement robust workplace health and safety legislation and to ensure that employers are forced to provide their employees with the necessary protection under those health and safety regulations.

Cathy Peattie illustrated the extent of the work that has still to be done to make the workplace much safer for employees. Many employers tend to try to ignore health and safety regulations if they can. It is important that procurators fiscal and the Crown Office take prosecutions on such statutory matters very seriously, and that they have the resources to carry out what can often be complex and detailed investigations in the pursuit of individual cases against employers. I hope that the minister can assure us that the Crown Office is aware of the need to pursue such matters vigorously.

I wish to touch on two issues under the wider matter of health and safety regulations. My particular interest in the matter lies in the extension of health and safety regulations to the police. When that happened, the regulations were by default extended to include mountain rescue teams. As a member of a mountain rescue team, I can report that such teams have indeed had to comply with the health and safety regulations. The result is that they have had to allow for a higher turnover in their personal safety equipment and in general safety equipment for their teams. Mountain rescue teams' problem is that they are voluntary organisations that are having to raise more and more funds in order to comply with health and safety regulations. I hope that ministers will ensure that the funding that is to be provided to the police for mountain rescue purposes reflects the increasing demands that are being placed upon mountain rescue teams.

Cathy Peattie mentioned the particular Scottish dimension in health in safety. There is an issue around the accountability of the Health and Safety Executive and how it interprets regulations. Cathy Peattie and I have both been involved in the matter of the Health and Safety Executive's decision to extend the consultation zone around the Grangemouth oil refinery from roughly 1 mile to 3 miles. The zone now takes in a wide range around the refinery. No one says that we should compromise on the safety of residents living within that zone, but it is interesting to note that other countries have chosen to interpret matters differently as regards their oil refineries.

Falkirk Council has highlighted the danger that the Health and Safety Executive might, in relation to the Grangemouth area, have chosen to interpret the new regulations in a way that could stifle economic development, leading to population decline and possibly causing a whole range of problems in the community. It is important that the Health and Safety Executive and the Scottish Executive recognise, despite the fact that health and safety is a reserved matter, that the concerns that have been expressed in the Scottish Parliament must be taken into account and acted upon.

Also in relation to the consultation zone around Grangemouth refinery, I hope that the idea—which has attracted cross-party support—of a review of the way in which call-in procedures operate will be pursued. The likelihood is that if a 3-mile consultation zone goes ahead—indeed, it is already operating—it will cause serious problems for any development in the Grangemouth area. I believe that that would stifle development, which would be to the detriment of the area in general.

Photo of Donald Gorrie Donald Gorrie Liberal Democrat 5:33 pm, 30th October 2003

It is excellent that Karen Gillon has secured the debate and has linked it with the European Union. One of the benefits of the EU is that it provides us with a much wider sphere from which to learn of best practice. I have no doubt that some countries do particular things particularly well, and that we can learn from that.

Other speakers have covered the basic safety at work issues very well, but I would like to stress some of those points. There is the question of violence against employees, whether that involves shop workers, council officials or firefighters. For example, this is the season when people working in small shops often suffer intimidation, with attempts made to persuade them to sell fireworks to the wrong people. We can do more to prevent or discourage violence against employees in both the public and commercial sectors.

Smoking is a hot issue that arouses a lot of passion. The issue of smoking in public places and in workplaces is important and the Parliament can address it—I hope that we make serious progress on it. Legislation may be necessary because voluntary systems do not seem to work well.

Stress affects a huge number of people, although it is difficult to do something dramatic about it quickly. My two sons work infinitely too hard because doing so is part of the culture of the organisations for which they work. The option of working more reasonable hours for less money does not exist for them. Along with the commercial and public sectors, we must examine ways of reducing stress.

Enthusiasts of health and safety regulations—for example, fire regulations—often impose unrealistic conditions on offices. The result is that offices build lots of fire doors, which are permanently wedged open until the telephonist at the front door says, "Help! The fire people are coming," at which point everyone rushes around, unplugs the wedges and closes the doors. There is no point in that. We need regulations, but they must be sensible and go with the flow. We want to push people along, but not too far. Another example of foolish regulations, which I think is driven by the insurance industry, is that home helps are not allowed to climb up ladders to work high up in a room. The assumption is that the frail, elderly person that they are helping should do that, which is stupid.

There are modern issues, which have been dealt with in the past, such as the problems of looking at computer screens for too long, repetitive strain injury and noise. People who work in the entertainment industry must suffer from noise, even when loudspeakers are not involved. I know that musicians in orchestras who habitually sit in front of the trombones tend to go a bit deaf.

The issue of health and safety at work has many aspects, which we should pick up individually. I hope that the minister will address some of my points.

Photo of Frances Curran Frances Curran SSP 5:38 pm, 30th October 2003

I, too, thank Karen Gillon for bringing the debate to the Parliament. The issue of health and safety at work is vast, but the aim of the European week for safety and health is to raise awareness of the issue among trade unions and Parliaments throughout Europe, and perhaps to encourage the introduction of legislation as a result.

As Karen Gillon said, last year, 37 workers in Scotland were killed at their workplace. The figure for the UK as a whole was 300. Since 1999, only two company directors have been prosecuted in Scotland for health and safety at work offences—one was admonished; the other received a fine of £1,000. Although the rate of accidents in Scotland is higher, in the same period, 29 company directors were prosecuted in England and Wales. One worrying trend in Scotland is that the number of fatal injuries at work has increased by 14 per cent from 2001-02 to 2002-03, although in Britain as a whole, the figure fell by 11 per cent. The rate of fatal accidents at work reflects the trends in health and safety at work. We must ask ourselves why the figure is rising in Scotland.

One difference between England and Wales and Scotland is the way in which health and safety at work offences are prosecuted. In England and Wales, the Health and Safety Executive can bring prosecutions directly but although, as has been said, such cases can be complex, in Scotland, procurators fiscal prosecute them. It seems that there is a reluctance on the part of the PFs to prosecute many of these cases. I do not have the answer, but I am raising the question: should that be looked at? Is it the place of the PFs to prosecute? Should we look for some other form of prosecution or of taking up these issues when they are raised?

How are we going to force workplaces, employers and, especially, companies to take health and safety issues seriously? That is at the heart of the matter, and trade unions have been at the forefront of doing that work. They are the bodies that have pushed this issue more than anybody else to ensure that there is safety in the workplace.

The issue of corporate manslaughter charges is very important. The UK Labour Government gave a commitment in 1997 that it would introduce a new law on that. It undertook consultation in 2000, which found that there was huge support for such charges. Those who were in favour of them included trade unions, lawyers, victims' families and voluntary organisations. Those who were against them included the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the big companies' chief executives.

Karen Gillon is going to introduce a member's bill to create a charge of corporate culpable homicide. We need to send the signal out about how seriously we take the issue. It is a devolved issue and we can change the law in Scotland on it. If we were to move in that direction, it would concentrate the minds of many employers on taking the issue of health and safety at work seriously.

The two main issues are the question of prosecution—and who prosecutes—and the need to change the law. I know that the minister does not want to talk about Transco, but if the big companies think that they are only going to get their knuckles rapped or a little fine, they will not take the issue seriously. If they think that their directors might go to jail for 20 years, that would tend to concentrate their minds on the procedures in their workplaces. Therefore, a central part of changing the culture and attitudes is passing legislation to force companies and workplaces to take health and safety at work seriously.

Photo of Elaine Smith Elaine Smith Labour 5:42 pm, 30th October 2003

I, too, congratulate Karen Gillon on securing today's debate. Health and safety does not normally reach out and grab people as a subject that they want to discuss. It is seen as a bit of an anorak subject. However, the fact is that health and safety is, ultimately, an issue of life or death. Unsafe working conditions affect our quality of life in the workplace and beyond.

I will say a bit more about trade unions. Trade unions, as we know them, grew from the need to improve pay and conditions, especially concerning issues of health and safety and the quality of workers' lives. To understand the issues that we face today, it is important that we remember the origins of the trade union movement and, in particular, the role that women played in that process.

In 1888, Clementina Black gave a speech on female labour at a Fabian Society meeting in London. In the audience was Annie Besant, who was appalled to hear of the plight of the workers at the Bryant & May match factory. Their pay and conditions involved their working 14 hours a day for an absolute pittance and they did not necessarily get their full wages, as they were fined for heinous crimes such as dropping the matches or going to the toilet without permission. If they were late, they were docked half a day's pay. However, worse than that, they also suffered ill health and death through working with yellow phosphorous—a substance that was, at the time, banned in the United States and Sweden. Yellow phosphorous was not, however, banned by the British Government, as that would have created a restraint on free trade. Basically, it was an example of the familiar rule of putting profits before people, which Karen Gillon touched on.

Annie Besant wrote an article entitled "White Slavery in London", which caused the management of Bryant & May to try to make their workers say that they were all happy and that everything was fine. When they did not, the organiser was sacked, a strike took place and the Matchgirls Union was formed. The Times said that the women had been egged on by

"pests of the modern industrialised world".

It is just as well that those pests existed, as the match girls won improvements in their working conditions, although it was not until 1901—following a visit to the factory by MPs and journalists—that Bryant & May stopped using yellow phosphorous.

The match girls are an early example of workers forming into organised labour to win improvements at work. We have to ask ourselves whether we still face such horrendous conditions and hazards to health. I think that we do. We face issues such as repetitive strain injury, sexual harassment, bullying and stress, which Donald Gorrie mentioned. Those are some of the modern health hazards at work, and they are faced particularly by women.

Of course, the match girls are not the only workers who have been fined. For example, petrol station workers are fined if someone drives off without paying. Further, it is regarded as a heinous crime if workers in some factories and call centres go to the toilet without permission. Conditions can still be outrageous in many workplaces because the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 may not always be adhered to. Modern issues such as stress must also be considered in the context of working conditions.

I want to talk briefly about sexual harassment because it can really blight women's lives at work. Sexual harassment can involve verbal or physical advances, offensive, sexually explicit remarks and the display of pornographic and offensive literature and pictures. Sexual harassment can also interfere with performance and security, affect promotion opportunities and cause stress-related illness. Sexual harassment is not a modern phenomenon. I wanted to give a lovely quote by Isabella Ford from 1893. Sadly, I do not have time to do so because I have only one minute left.

Many of 19th century Britain's attitudes are still with us in the new millennium. Trade unions have historically been the workers' champions in fighting the profit-before-people rule, promoting health and safety and securing that as a sensible approach to industrial relations. I inform Phil Gallie that a happy, healthy, well-trained work force and team will yield more profit for employers than a sick, stressed set of individuals. However, the challenge is to persuade employers of that.

In the new millennium we are fighting the same fight as in the previous one. Trade unions are battling for heath and safety standards and women are still striving for equality. We should commend the trade unions and the STUC for their work in the field of health and safety. We should also commend the STUC women's committee and Rozanne Foyer for the work that they do for women. We acknowledge that pests can win over profits and achieve decent standards of health and safety for 21st century workers—if we shout about it.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party 5:46 pm, 30th October 2003

I am grateful to Karen Gillon for bringing the motion before us today.

The theme of the European week for safety and health at work is really the prevention of risks from dangerous substances at work. In my previous working environments, I was exposed to many noxious, dangerous and toxic chemicals because I worked as a scientist in the pharmaceutical industry and the health service. However, probably among the most dangerous, noxious and toxic chemicals I was exposed to in those environments—and which, I regret to say, I am still exposed to in my present working environment—is environmental tobacco smoke. Donald Gorrie referred to that in his speech, but I will spell it out a little more.

We have heard in the debate about the number of people who die in industrial accidents. However, it is estimated that if we had totally smoke-free workplaces in Scotland, the smoking rate would drop by 4 per cent and total tobacco consumption would drop by 7.5 per cent. Action on Smoking and Health Scotland estimates that we would have 1,000 fewer deaths each year if we had smoke-free workplaces. I believe that the Scottish Parliament can certainly address that issue and I hope that it will do so. In fact, a member's bill on the issue is currently before Parliament. If we enact that legislation, it will affect people's workplaces and will benefit many people.

Passive smoking causes a 25 to 35 per cent greater risk of coronary heart disease, a 20 to 30 per cent greater risk of lung cancer and an amazing 82 per cent greater risk of stroke. Further, people who are exposed to passive smoking have decreased lung function. There is no safe level of exposure to environmental tobacco smoke. Ventilation systems do not reduce the significant health risks that are associated with passive smoking.

Currently, only half the workplaces in the United Kingdom and less than half the workplaces in Scotland are smoke free. However, in other parts of the world, legislation on the issue exists or is being implemented. For example, Ireland is due to bring in smoke-free workplace legislation in January of next year; Norway will do the same late next spring; New Zealand's smoke-free environment legislation is going through its Parliament; and successful legislation has already had an impact in various states in the United States.

We can have legislation on smoking in public places and workplaces. Evidence from other countries suggests that primary legislation is the most effective mechanism for reducing environmental tobacco smoke and exposure to passive smoking. Environmental tobacco smoke should be listed explicitly in the forthcoming European Union carcinogens directive. It should also be added to the COSHH regulations. The European Union health commissioner has advocated a European Union-wide approach to protecting workers from passive smoking in the workplace. Others have suggested that there are no geographical boundaries where this issue is concerned. I welcome the commissioner's suggestion.

The voluntary approach that some have adopted is clearly not working. Seven in 10 of all Scottish pubs and bars permit smoking throughout. That affects workers as well as customers. Four in 10 of all Scottish leisure industry sites, including superstores, sports grounds and sports centres as well as pubs and restaurants, permit smoking throughout. Only one in seven of all leisure industry sites complies with all the key aspects of the voluntary charter. It does not work.

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour 5:51 pm, 30th October 2003

I, too, congratulate Karen Gillon on lodging the motion and providing an opportunity to debate safety and health in the workplace. The Scottish Executive concurs with her entirely about the importance of the European week for safety and health, the message that it conveys about the key role of trade unions and the importance of the work of all those who are involved in promoting safe and healthy working.

Overall, Scotland's safety and health at work record is broadly comparable with that of England and Wales. However, as has been said this afternoon, there are some important exceptions—in both directions.

In construction, the fatality rate is higher here than it is south of the border. In August this year, I took delivery of a report from a group that was set up to advance a strategic approach to the construction industry, addressing a range of issues. Significantly, the members of the group, most of whom were drawn from the industry, identified as one of the five major constraints on progress in the Scottish construction industry the inadequacy of previous achievements in health and safety. In its report, the group made a number of detailed recommendations aimed at addressing that problem.

The construction innovation and excellence forum that we hope will be set up as a result of that process will act as a point of contact between the Executive and the industry. I hope that the forum will also serve as the starting point for addressing safety and health issues. Clearly, employment practices such as bogus self-employment and lack of training have a significant impact on safety and health in the construction industry. We look forward to the outcome of the forum's work and to its proposals for tackling such problems. The trade unions played an active role in the work of the group that produced the construction industry report, as they have in many other areas.

There are anomalies in the other direction. For example, the labour force survey that was commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive indicates that the rates of self-reported, work-related injuries and ill health are significantly lower in Scotland than they are elsewhere. The reasons for those differences are not clear and it is important that we identify them. The HSE has undertaken to carry out further research to do that. Cathy Peattie suggested that the fundamental explanation for the difference is under-reporting, which would be a very serious matter. I understand that the HSE's research is intended to establish whether that is the case.

As has been said, legislative responsibility for health and safety at work is a reserved area. However, the Scottish Executive is very clear about the fact that health and safety at work is critical to the achievement of our strategic objectives for health improvement in Scotland.

Photo of Brian Adam Brian Adam Scottish National Party

Proposals for two members' bills that affect health and safety at work are before the Parliament. Will the minister indicate how the Executive perceives the proposed regulation of smoking bill and the proposed culpable homicide by corporate bodies bill?

Photo of Lewis Macdonald Lewis Macdonald Labour

Both proposals are too important to be tagged on to a debate on a wider issue. I do not intend to provide a definitive Executive view on them this evening. However, I recognise the significance of the issues and I will say a word or two about them in a few moments.

There is a common agenda in Government at every level on tackling health and safety issues. Employees and trade unions have an interest in that and so, of course, do employers. The point was made that a work force that is unhealthy or unsafe is, by definition, bad for recruitment, bad for morale and bad for business, as well as bad for the work force itself. There is clearly a common interest, with responsible employers, trade unions and others working together on that. I am pleased to say that we work closely with the Health and Safety Executive, the Confederation of British Industry and the STUC in pursuing a safety-at-work agenda. The First Minister recently discussed precisely those matters with the STUC.

The "Securing Health Together" document, which we signed three years ago, constituting a Great Britain-wide occupational health strategy, has laid the basis for the way in which we seek to improve Scotland's health at work. It covers a project to deliver health and safety support to small and medium-sized enterprises, which often do not have the capacity to have those professional skills in house. It provides to employers and employees in the small-business sector confidential, high-quality information, advice and support.

In March 2003, in "Improving Health in Scotland—The Challenge", we confirmed our view that the workplace is one of the core target areas for health improvement. To develop our approach to a healthy-working lifestyle, we have come together with the STUC, employers and the voluntary sector. We have increased substantially the funding to the Scotland's health at work award scheme, which was mentioned in a number of speeches. SHAW is a unique, national awards scheme to address Scotland's poor health record and, by doing so, to improve our business position. The scheme rewards employers who demonstrate a commitment to improving the health of their work force and to reducing sickness absence. I am pleased to say that, just last month at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents conference in Glasgow, the Scottish Executive was congratulated by the chairman of the scheme on achieving its SHAW bronze award this year.

Donald Gorrie and Brian Adam will be interested to know that smoke-free workplaces were part of what qualified the Scottish Executive for that award. I understand that the Scottish Parliament has now registered with SHAW, in pursuit of a similar award and, no doubt, there will be some discussion of how that will best be achieved. I look forward to the outcome of that. Karen Gillon asked how many employees were now covered by SHAW initiatives. In August of this year, just over 726,000 Scottish employees were covered.

The latest health white paper, "Partnership for Care", confirmed our broad view that health in the workplace is important, but it recognised that specific things needed to be done to address the matter. The issue was raised of a Scottish strategic overview—or, in Cathy Peattie's words, a Scottish commission for health and safety. Clearly the Health and Safety Executive has responsibility for that throughout Great Britain and I believe that it is open to discussion on how best its objectives can be met in Scotland. I welcome the suggestion that we take a joined-up approach to those matters and I will ensure that the comments that have been made today are drawn to the HSE's attention.

A number of members raised the issue of prosecutions. We share the view that no one should get away with criminal negligence resulting in death or serious injury at work. As Frances Curran said, there is a different prosecution system in Scotland from that in England and Wales, which explains partly the differences in some of the statistics. There are different evidential requirements in the Scottish and English systems. I give the reassurance that the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service takes seriously health and safety cases and will always raise prosecutions if there is sufficient evidence and if it is in the public interest to do so. All fatal accidents at work will result in prosecution where the HSE reports the case to the procurator fiscal and there is sufficient evidence to proceed.

The Parliament will have the opportunity to consider corporate homicide in the future. We acknowledge the commitment of Karen Gillon and others to ensuring that the law in that respect is adequate to meet its need. We look forward with great interest to developments in that area.

We in the Scottish Executive are also employers and members will be interested to know that we have a procedure for addressing workplace stress. I do not know whether any elected members want to take advantage of that. That procedure is part of a health and safety management programme that we have implemented across our work force. It might seem surprising, but members of our work force report that their knowledge and understanding of health and safety issues have improved and that, in their experience of their workplace, it is a safer place in which to work than it was a couple of years ago. That improvement has been driven by a health and safety team in the Executive and a network of health and safety liaison officers. I commend that model to others in the public and private sectors.

We hope that our example will be followed. It is for all employers to follow the lead that is given by the best and most responsible employers and to work with their staff and trade unions, which, as a number of members have said, have made a critical contribution on the health and safety agenda for more than 100 years. We look forward to the continuation of that work, so that Scotland will be one of the safest countries in Europe in which to work.

Meeting closed at 18:01.