Because the HSE is staffed by experts with experience of working in some of the most dangerous industries, their skills are in extremely high demand. In turn, this demand offers the potential to hire out these experts to businesses who are willing to pay for their services.
The Health and Safety Laboratory in Buxton, Derbyshire already carries out a limited number of commercial activities, such as providing expert witnesses for court cases. However the Department of Work and Pensions (who fund and oversee the HSE) are expected to announce the creation of a ‘commercial wing’ of the lab and its services next month.
It is hoped that an increase in commercial activities will help not only reduce the need for government funding (currently running at £145.5m annually), but also help to strengthen relationships with private sector partners.
Concerns from unions and other public sector officials
Other public sector bodies are not so keen on the move, suggesting that this commercialisation is simply the first step on the road to full privatisation of the HSE. Tracey Harding, head of health and safety at the Unison union was unequivocal, “The HSE has the vital role of promoting and enforcing health and safety laws. It is not designed to be a money-making machine.”
An unnamed Whitehall source told the Independent newspaper that “Commercialisation is fine, but it’s fair to say this could be seen as a first step to privatisation.”
Potential for advanced inspection services
Among the schemes under consideration is the option for providing additional voluntary inspections for businesses that already have good health and safety systems in place. These chargeable inspections would benefit businesses operating in heavily regulated industries that struggle with obtaining clearance for new building projects for instance.
Other valuable specialisms that the HSE hope to cash in on include ventilation systems and chemical toxicology.
What about the future?
Although the services offered by the HSE may change slightly, the organisation will retain responsibility for monitoring and reporting on health and safety throughout the UK should privatisation go ahead. Businesses will also be subject to mandatory inspections in the same manner as they are at present.
It is also important to remember that the HSE already attempts to recoup the expense of investigations from businesses found to have breached legislation. The HSE Fee for Intervention is currently set at £124 per hour – a not insignificant sum for investigations that last more than half a day. It is highly likely that this figure will help set the baseline rate for future consultancy services.
Over to you
What do you make of these plans to commercialise the HSE? Does your business have any need for additional, chargeable services from the HSE?