HC Deb 11 December 1970 vol 808 cc906-18

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Rossi.]

4.2 p.m.

Dr. Shirley Summerskill (Halifax)

I am grateful to have this opportunity of raising the subject of industrial accidents and diseases. I realise that it is not a newsworthy subject; in fact, it is a neglected subject. News has been said to consist of the unexpected, and most people regard the accident as an inevitable part of our daily life and one of the unavoidable evils with which we have to put up.

I have chosen to raise this subject for two particular reasons. The issue of industrial relations and strikes is currently giving rise to extreme, and even militant, controversy both inside and outside Parliament. Higher and higher are the numbers of workdays lost through strikes. We may reach as many as 8½ million days lost this year. Yet it is scarcely realised generally that industrial accidents and diseases cause the loss of never less than 24 million work days each year, compared with the 8½ million lost through strikes. In addition, these accidents and diseases impose an extreme burden on the social security benefit scheme.

Why is there such a clamour for laws against strikers and no apparent public demand for health and safety at work? Is it because strikes are dramatic and militant—they are news—but injury and sickness are everyday events and therefore dull?

For the political parties there are votes to be had in policies for strikes, but there are few votes in a policy for safety and health at work. Yet surely a nation's wealth is bound up in its health. A sick nation is a sick economy. The public and Parliament must realise that industrial reform and industrial health are different aspects of the same problem.

My second reason for raising this subject is that as a doctor I am alarmed at the most recent figures published in a vitally important report. The figures reveal much unnecessary and avoidable human suffering. The figures I shall quote now are only those of reported accidents and lists of diseases. They do not include every accident, because the vast majority of accidents are never reported because they do not cause disablement for more than three days.

The latest Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, published only two months ago, reveals the following extremely serious situation in 1969: 649 people died out of a total of 322,390 accidents reported; in other words, two people died and 1,100 were injured every working day throughout the year. This is a 3.2 per cent. increase on the total number of accidents in 1968. We cannot regard these figures with any satisfaction. We cannot ignore them. We must consider them very seriously.

There are twice as many accidents at work as there are on the roads, yet we seem to hear nothing else except accounts of road accidents and warnings about avoiding road accidents. Accident figures on the roads are put on the television with regularity. There are television advertisements explaining how to avoid road accidents. Pile-ups on the Ml are sure news in every newspaper if there is a fog.

Perhaps it is a little dull that twice the number of accidents occur in factories. I will tell the House some of the ways in which these deaths occur. Fatal accidents occur when a tyre which is being inflated blows up. Many would think that that was a very dull way to die. There are deaths from rotating shafts, deaths from overhead travelling cranes, and particularly deaths from falls. Perhaps these are rather unglamorous statistics. The construction industry is infamous for the number of fatal accidents occurring in it. Machines, which are often thought to be lethal cause only one in eight of accidents at work.

The reasons for these fatalities are more complicated machinery, the development of electricity, which is extremely dangerous in itself, and perhaps because so many jobs are boring and repetitive and people get careless, tired and apathetic. Young people particularly are suffering from accidents because their elders do not take the trouble or care to warn them and to impress upon them that they must use protective clothing and beware of dangers. New chemical processes are being used which are not fully understood.

I should like to see on television as much propaganda against factory accidents as there is against road accidents. There should be propaganda both on the shop floor and off the shop floor. I recognise that the Factory Inspectorate has increased from 550 to 700, but this is a negligible number in view of the 400,000 premises covered by legislation which should be inspected. There must be a growth in safety training, and employer, employee, Government, doctors and nurses must all create a new interest and enthusiasm in industrial safety. The factory bench and the building site should be made as safe as the managing director's chair in the boardroom.

I pay a tribute to the efforts of the British Safety Council and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents who are fighting a losing battle at the moment. But accidents are not inevitable. They are man-made, and this is what the public must realise. A side effect of these accidents is revealed in the new publication, the Annual Report of the Ministry of Health and Social Security. During 1969, according to this Report, in respect of industrial injuries the Department dealt with claims for benefit from 928,000 people, and for disablement benefit 205,000 people. That is over 1 million people in all putting a burden on the social security scheme. The Chief Inspector of Factories has said that the cost of accidents to industry could be vastly reduced if the average factory could even remotely approach the standards of the best.

In the same Report as the accident Report we are told of the ever-increasing range of industrial diseases. This, I appreciate, is a far more difficult problem to tackle. We have moved away from the infective diseases. We have moved on to new hazards of ionising radiation, the use of metals in industrial processes—cancer caused by the work that one does. Then we have psychiatric diseases increasing every day—stress diseases due to boring noisy repetitive work. In fact, noise is regarded in the Report as a special form of pollution.

We ask why there are strikes in industrial countries all over the world. Perhaps it is not because of money only. Perhaps the stress of work today, the stress of automation, is causing this industrial unrest which is common to every developed country. During the war when productivity was so essential, the Government of the day took steps to see that the work place was a pleasant place. There was "Music while you work", and hot food was available. The lighting and ventilation were improved, because it was appreciated that a happy and healthy worker is a productive worker.

The effects of industrial diseases are cumulative over a long period of exposure, so they are not immediately recognisable or diagnosed. Therefore, they need as much, if not more, attention than accidents. There is no instant solution. Research is required to correlate the different types of cancer with the different industrial processes. I should like to see industrial medicine far more of a speciality in the medical world, with consultants in the subject, and G.P.s who are really devoted to this particular specialty. There has been slow but sure progress in this field.

During the Industrial Revolution a Manchester spinner worked in a temperature of 80 to 84 degrees. He was fined Is. if he was found with the window open or was caught washing himself. More recently in my constituency of Halifax in 1958 there was a pilot survey of 800 factories. Halifax was chosen because it was a typical industrial town. In only 100 out of the 800 factories did conditions come up to acceptable standard, and one work place in every four was unsatisfactory. Going round the factories there today, I am not satisfied that there has been enormous progress in the field of industrial health.

There are enormous discrepancies. An efficient firm will invest in up-to-date first-aid rooms, in protective clothing, in incentive schemes to avoid accidents and in safety propaganda, but a small firm may have only one little first-aid box, and often no one can find the key.

Industrial nursing is not a job with the glamour of Emergency—Ward 10 or Doctor Kildare. These people need greater public recognition. Britain's services lag shamefully behind those in Yugoslavia, Finland, Sweden and Russia. When I visited Uganda, a developing country, I went round textile mills at which the workers had classroom lessons devoted entirely to safety and health at work.

We spend one-third of our lives at work. The best worker in industry, be he the managing director or the sweeper-up, is the man who is fit and happy. Much has been done, but it is essential that the attention of both Parliament and the public should be directed to this serious and worsening problem.

4.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Dudley Smith)

I am glad that the hon. Lady the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) has raised this subject today, and I am grateful to her for her typical courtesy in informing me in advance of the matters which she was likely to raise in her interesting speech. If I may say so, although I listened to her speech with great interest, I thought that it was, perhaps, excessively gloomy in parts. I say that while recognising, of course, that this is a serious subject, and without wishing in any way to underrate its importance.

As the hon. Lady rightly said, the subject of industrial accidents and disease seldom receives much newspaper coverage, though this is so not because the matter is unimportant. It is of vital significance. The promotion of safety and health at work is a matter to which all Governments have attached the highest importance, and I assure the hon. Lady, despite some of her comments, that the present Government are no less assiduous in this respect than were their predecessors.

The hon. Lady dealt with the question of strikes and the number of days lost through industrial sickness and injury. One often hears reference to the correlation between the two sets of figures. I dealt with it yesterday at Question Time, and I say again today that I do not believe that one can equate the number of days lost through accidents with the number lost through strikes. Strikes close factories or whole industries. While accidents and illness are inconvenient, they certainly do not close factories or industries.

Although the subject does not receive headline treatment, it has, I am glad to say, been receiving a good deal of attention lately both in the Government and in the organisations particularly interested in it. There was a useful debate on the subject in the other place a few weeks ago. Also, we have at the moment the Committee of Inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Robens, which was appointed by the previous Administration last May to review the existing arrangements for safety and health at work and to see where and how the arrangements could be improved. I take this opportunity of affirming the present Government's belief in the importance of this Committee's work. We are convinced that it has an essential job to do, and we hope to learn a great deal from it.

The Committee of Inquiry's terms of reference are deliberately wide, and it will be conducting a thorough reappraisal of the present system. It has three main tasks. First, it is looking at the scope and nature of the major relevant enactments and considering whether any changes are needed in them. Second, it is examining the nature and extent of voluntary action in this field and whether there is the right balance at present between voluntary action and legislation. Finally, it is looking at the question of the safety and health of the general public in so far as they are affected by the activities of people at work.

As was said in another place, Lord Robens has indicated that he is anxious for the Committee to accomplish its task as rapidly as possible. I know that it is already tackling it with great vigour. But it is only fair to stress that its endeavours are still at a fairly early stage, and we cannot look for a very quick report from it. The fact that the Robens Committee has been set up does not mean that we are suspending all action on this subject in the interim. My Department has submitted very strong and long evidence to the Committee, making recommendations that we think would give the Committee useful ideas.

Before dealing with the hon. Lady's specific points, I should like to mention one or two ways in which we are continuing to tackle the problem in advance of Robens. We are doing this through our studies of particular questions, the preparation of regulations, and the collection of information, and also through the regular work of the Factory Inspectorate in advising people, inspecting premises and investigating accidents.

First, we are continuing our work on codes of regulations, which contain the detailed provisions necessary to make sure that both employers and employees take all the right precautions when encountering hazards from particular processes or using specific substances. For instance, a draft has recently been issued on new regulations to control the use of benzene.

We are also preparing regulations dealing with a wide range of subjects, including docks, highly flammable liquids, protective footwear and gaiters in foundries, ladders, woodworking machinery and protection of eyes, which received a good deal of attention in the recent debate in the other place and to which we are paying special attention because there are many serious accidents affecting eyes.

We have just set up a special subcommittee of my right hon. Friend's Industrial Health Advisory Committee to consider what action should be taken to prevent loss of hearing by workers owing to industrial noise. Its first meeting was held last month, Meanwhile, a special survey of noise in industry will be carried out by our Factory Inspectorate. I expect that many hon. Members have, like the hon. Lady, been into factories and been alarmed by the high level of noise which many people have to experience without wearing ear muffs. It is very important that this matter should be investigated.

A small Accident Studies Unit was set up earlier this year to try to learn some of the underlying reasons for the very wide differences in accident rates in some factories and localities. The Unit will also be looking for reasons why some factories and industries have been more successful than others in keeping down or even reducing accident rates.

We believe that investigations into the problems of health and safety at work and the provision of effective statutory regulations for those meeting particular problems in industry is of great value in the vital—I use that word advisedly—task of creating a safe and healthy working environment.

The second main way in which my Department is continuing to tackle this problem is through the work of the Factory Inspectorate. This skilled body of men and women, through the detailed expert advice they give and the inspections they carry out, make a tremendously significant contribution to the prevention of accidents and the maintenance of healthy working conditions.

There has recently been a most welcome improvement in recruitment to the Inspectorate. The hon. Lady mentioned the figures briefly. Its size has grown from 492 inspectors in 1967 to 702 today, an increase of 40 per cent. in only four years. The hon. Lady says that this is inadequate, and I am perfectly prepared to have her view on this. The official reaction is that the Inspectorate is now very strong and very viable. It may well be that in due course we shall have more inspectors, but certainly it is very flexible and working very well. We should not underestimate the amount of work the factory inspectors do that never comes to light, which is not revealed in publicity about prosecutions, because the matter does not come to prosecutions, nor in actual accidents taking place, because, through their work, they have prevented accidents occurring.

I should like to deal briefly with some of the specific issues raised by the hon. Lady. She rightly drew attention to the increase in the number of reported accidents and, in particular, to the increase last year in the number of fatal accidents. Although the number of fatal accidents has remained relatively stable over the last decade, this is small consolation. I share the very real concern expressed by the hon. Lady at the high rate of accidents. No Government could be satisfied with the present level of reported accidents let alone the increasing trend in recent years. I would be the last person to minimise the economic dislocation and the sheer human misery which lie behind the figures of a whole. Cold statistics cover up broken bodies and bereaved homes. It is a very human problem.

We should, however, interpret the figures with a fair amount of caution. Part of the increase in the number of all accidents may be due to improved standards of reporting them. Another factor is that the criterion used under the Factories Act for a reported accident—that it causes at least three days' absence from work—was fixed something like half a century ago. Since then, changing social conditions have altered the significance of that criterion. Workers are no longer under the great economic pressure that they once were to return to their jobs in the minimum time and often before they were fit.

It is generally accepted—this is a point which the Chief Inspector has brought out repeatedly in his annual statements—that the figures are not a sound indication of actual safety performance. For this reason, my Department started in 1969 to collect accurate information about the severity of injuries on the basis of a 5 per cent. sample of reported accidents. By this means, we hope in time to get a better idea of the safety performance of industry by looking at the trend in those accidents which result in injuries which are both severe and unambiguously caused at work.

Having said that, however, I must stress again that I do not minimise the importance of the hon. Lady's comments on the number of accidents. Obviously, we must all try much harder to reduce accidents. An important approach to accident prevention is to encourage the spread of joint consultation on safety matters between management and workpeople. The second Part of the Employed Persons (Health and Safety) Bill, which was introduced by the last Government but which failed to reach the Statute Book, dealt with the establishment of joint safety committees. This is rather contentious ground. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is not satisfied that compulsion is the right way to develop more effective joint consultation on safety. We are, however, convinced of the importance of joint consultation, although we consider it preferable to proceed on a voluntary basis. A special sub-committee of my right hon. Friend's Industrial Safety Advisory Council has been considering how to encourage the growth of arrangements for joint consultation.

The hon. Lady suggested that, possibly, not enough was being done concerning industrial diseases and, if I get her message right, that perhaps there is not enough research into this problem. On the general point, I assure her that our efforts concerning industrial disease are no less unremitting than they are in the case of accidents. We are working on regulations to control the use of benzine and we have recently made regulations dealing with the important subject of asbestos. I am glad to tell the House that our Industrial Hygiene Unit is expanding rapidly and is attracting attention, not only in this country, but has recently gained praise from experts in Europe. It is continuing to improve the service that it can give to industry on questions concerning toxic substances.

The Medical Inspectorate and the Industrial Hygiene Unit are at present engaged on a survey of pottery workers throughout the country to determine the incidence of pulmonary disease and the levels of dust to be found in the industry. This involves the medical examination, including X-ray, of over 5,000 workers and a programme of testing dust samples in potteries. A number of smaller-scale inquiries of the same kind are going on in other industries.

On the question of research into industrial diseases, I am surprised that the hon. Lady does not think that enough is being undertaken. The register of research which my Department produces shows that a considerable amount of research into industrial health hazards is already undertaken. If the hon. Lady is interested, as I am sure she is, I shall be happy to let her have a copy of the register. I am not aware of any particular area in which more research is necessary, but if the hon. Lady has any specific suggestions I shall be glad to receive them, because on all sides we must co-operate in this direction. The hon. Lady mentioned her interest in the occupational health service. I have heard her speak about this before. I appreciate her view. But this is not the time and place to go into the question, because it is a very wide one and crosses Departmental boundaries. There is a strong feeling on this in some quarters. We favoured the appointment of the Employment Medical Advisory Service to replace the Appointed Factory Doctor Service. As the hon. Lady knows, this also fell in the Bill to which I have already referred. I cannot say this afternoon when that legislation will be brought forward, but I can assure her that we have the question of the E.M.A.S. under active consideration. This would not provide the sort of comprehensive medical coverage which is given in some firms by works doctors, but it would make a substantial contribution over the country as a whole in the battle against disease and ill health at work.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this subject and I welcome her expert interest. There is no easy solution, no one solution.

We believe that by steady and progressive work in all the various spheres of safety and industrial health we shall begin to make an impact on these figures, as, indeed, succeeding Governments have worked on it.

I emphasise again, and I am sure that the hon. Lady will accept it, that the Government are determined to do whatever they can to reduce the toll of industrial accidents and diseases.

The hon. Lady's figures were slightly wrong when she mentioned that road fatalities were exceeded—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.