Think tank Policy Exchange's latest report warns of a ‘culture of over-compliance' and of a rapidly burgeoning health and safety industry in which consultants have a clear incentive to inflate the level of risk mitigation that must be carried out, both to generate business and protect their reputation.
Over 1, 500 specialist health and safety firms now offer their services to business, and analysts have valued the sector at between £700 million and £1 billion. The Better Regulation Executive has described it as ‘one of the fastest-growing business-to-business sales sectors in the UK'.
Corin Taylor, a senior policy adviser at the Institute of Directors and author of the report, said: "Health and safety regulation has a long history and a noble purpose. Britain has gone from a country where children climbed chimneys to sweep away coal dust to virtually the safest place to work in the EU.
"But something has clearly gone wrong. There's such an enormous amount of uncertainty about health and safety legislation that this has led to a culture of over-compliance. Matters are little helped by the fact that there are no qualifications required to become a health and safety consultant, and it's possible to acquire an industry-respected health and safety certificate after just 10 days."
The report's recommendations include a need for greater clarity around legal requirements such as ‘reasonably practical' and HSE guidance on when a risk assessment needs to be made or how extensive it needs to be.
It also recommends a minimum standard of qualification for health and safety consultants should be introduced.
Consideration should be given as to whether certain health and safety requirements - for example, risk assessments - can be lifted from micro-enterprises and low-risk office-based businesses.
But the report questions whether the self-employed need any health and safety requirements at all, except for ensuring that their work does not harm others. And it advises an investigation into stripping back regulation in this area.
Policy Exchange claims the current costs of health and safety regulation are too high. There are a number of approaches that could be taken to tackle this: the introduction of regulatory budgets, the removal of individual regulations or a reduction in the number of regulatory requirements. An investigation should be carried out into the viability and effectiveness of these approaches.
The last, and biggest, question is whether we should really try to eliminate all risk, or whether we should try to manage risk effectively. At some point, the marginal cost of risk-mitigation will exceed the marginal benefit of fewer injuries. Much as it will take a brave politician to advocate a reduction in regulation following an accident, it may be important to make explicit where health and safety lies in the order of priorities.
But TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said: "This report is as close to being relevant to the needs of the modern workplace as Alice in Wonderland.
"Anyone who believes that there is a culture of over-compliance needs some basic lessons in the reality of working life. Last year 30 million days were lost due to injuries and ill-health caused by work. And a quarter of a million people were injured at work. These were caused by employers failing to comply with health and safety regulations.
"There is not one shred of evidence that there is any over-compliance. Research has shown that over half of all small businesses have not even done a basic risk assessment as required by law.
"We now have fewer than half the number of regulations than 35 years ago, and they are generally simpler and clearer. Yet businesses spend, on average, less than four minutes a day on health and safety - hardly a major burden.
"There is no place for any lowering of standards or reducing regulation. Instead we need more support for those businesses that want to do the right thing, and more enforcement action against those that do not."