HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1391-5

12.36 p.m.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974; and for connected purposes. At present, the position regarding weight limits is confused. The Agriculture (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1959 provide for any workers employed in agriculture to lift any load consisting of a sack or a bag together with its contents lifted or carried unaided a maximum of 180 lb. Yet the Woollen and Worsted Textiles (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations 1926 put the maximum where the yarn, cloth, tool or appliance is reasonably compact at 150 lb. and where it is not a rigid body at 120 lb. There is no reasonable assumption for supposing that there is any physical difference between textile and agricultural workers.

The Factories Act 1961, Section 72(1), limits the load for any employed person to any load so heavy as to be likely to cause injury to the person lifting, carrying or moving it.

My Bill would, of course, retain that general limitation, but, in order to clarify and improve the situation, the maximum weight permitted in any circumstances for adult males would be 112 lb.

In addition, the Woollen and Worsted Textiles (Lifting of Heavy Weights) Regulations contain provisions for the maximum weight applying to any person lifting to be multiplied by the number of persons lifting. That can cause grave risks to be taken because of the potential unequal distribution of weight when two or more persons are engaged in lifting. Therefore, I shall include provision for an additional person to be required where the load is above 200 lb.

The Bill would be classed as a "relevant statutory provision" under Schedule I to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act and, as such, would be subject to the powers of the Minister under Section I of that Act. That would mean that, should the Minister decide that further improvements were necessary as part of a complete review of the lifting of weights in industry and agriculture, he would not be hindered by an Act which would not be part of the general legislative pattern. The Minister would thus be able to repeal or alter the provisions of the Act by Regulation made under the major statute, provided that any alterations were designed to maintain or improve the standards of health, safety and welfare. However, it seems to me to be important to take action quickly, because of the number of back injuries which occur, rather than wait for a review.

Indeed, in a Written Question on 31st March 1976 I asked the Secretary of State for Employment what consultations have been instituted with the Health and Safety Commission to produce legislation further to control the lifting of heavy weights by work people in order to reduce the demands on the Health Service arising from back injuries. The Minister replied: I am advised by the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that the Health and Safety Executive has held informal discussions with representatives of a number of organisations having wide experience in the problems of the manual lifting of heavy weights. In addition, it is intended to include the subject in a review of the wider field of ergonomics which is to be undertaken by the Executive."—[Official Report, 31st March 1976; Vol. 908, c. 486.] However, the Commission and the Executive have a heavy programme of work—the Chairman of the Commission is to chair an important Committee on asbestos—and it may be some years before such a review could be completed. Legislative action is urgently needed, hence the need for this modest piece of legislation to take effect in the very near future.

The position has not changed in the five months since November last year, when I asked the Minister for information on the number of back injuries arising in industry. I asked him for the number of accidents reported in 1971, 1972, 1973 and 1974 which could be attributed to lifting heavy loads, how many of these resulted in injury to the back, and what proposals the Health and Safety Commission had for either Regulations or a code of practice manual on lifting of heavy loads.

The Minister replied that he had been informed by the Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission that the estimated number of accidents involving strains, sprains, etc., to the trunk, including slipped discs, in accident notifications received by Her Majesty's Factory Inspectorate under the Factories Act 1961 were:

1971 49,280
1972 47,480
1973 50,460
1974 51,480".

In each year there were something approaching 2,500 slipped disc cases, which, as hon. Members will realise, take-up hospital beds for an extremely long time in effecting a cure. The Minister added: the Health and Safety Commission proposes to consider the question of Regulations or a code of practice ".—[Official Report, 5th November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 172–3.]

If my Bill assists to reduce that toll of injury, as I believe it will, it will do a great deal of good.

There is also the enormous cost to the nation to consider. Most hon. Members will have received a pamphlet from the Backpain Association, written by Dr. David Delvin. Chapter 6 of that pamphlet gives some observations on cost. I quote: Perhaps the best answer is 'an awful lot of money!' With 50,000 people off work every day with back trouble, time lost to industry and business thanks to back pain is more serious than time lost through strikes!

It goes on to comment about heavy jobs, such as mining, and it says: and among miners, a survey at one colliery showed that nearly one-fifth of all time lost from work was due to back trouble

It then goes on to say: but even in lighter work, backache is very common—and very costly. A light engineering firm emloying 1,000 people worked out that back troubles cost them as much as £10,000 a year—or £10 for every single member of staff. Calculations show that if you apply these figures to the whole of business and commerce, British industry is losing something like £200,000,000 a year through back pain.

While it is intended that the general provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act shall apply to the provisions of this Bill, and that it shall be subject to such means of enforcement as improvement and prohibition notices and other provisions, it is also intended that the application of Section 47 shall be limited in its application in that the Bill would give rise to civil liability under actions for breach of statutory duty. It is in this field that many workers have found that the various existing Regulations have been most onerous.

There was a recent case of a farm worker who was standing on a lorry taking sacks of grain from a loading door and stacking them on the lorry. For some reason one sack was larger and took more grain than usual, and when it was handed to the worker who was at a slightly lower level the load simply pushed him to the floor. He received severe and permanent injuries to his back such that he is unable to work at that type of job again. He claimed compensation in a civil court and the defence used the statutory limit of 180 lb. as a reason for refusing compensation. The case was settled out of court because it could not be satisfactorily established whether the weight was over 180 lb. The weight was a great deal too heavy in the first place and has resulted in the loss of a person's good health, time in hospital and the use of valuable facilities and time in court. So long as the statutory limits remain high, so long will accidents like that continue to happen.

As a further example, in a letter written to me in March this year a textile worker complains: ' may I give you another example of unfair situations regarding the Health and Safety at Work Act and the attitude of management. An inspector employed in our cloth inspection department had occasion to lift a roll of cloth off a 'batching unit'. There is no good access to the above machine and the operator/ inspector would have to stand sideways and attempt to lift approximately 150 lb. or more by leaning over the machine. Requests were made by the men in the inspector's department to make the job more accessible or redesign the batching unit for better access. That was two years ago!

The access was altered only under threat of legal action by the men, and photographic evidence was taken which resulted in action. This sort of situation should not be necessary.

By bringing down the maximum weight to 112 lb., we should save the nation money, prevent many damaging accidents, keep more people at work in a better state of health and release valuable National Health Service facilities for other uses. Any future improvements recommended by the Commission can readily be incorporated in the way I have described. If action can be taken swiftly by approving the Bill, it will clarify a difficult and confused situation, and surely, in health and safety at work, that can only be of benefit. I hope that the House will give its approval to the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Max Madden, Miss Jo Richardson, Mr. Kevin McNamara, Mr. Ted Leadbitter, Mr. Mike Noble, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Neil Kinnock, Mr. George Rodgers, Mr. Eric S. Heffer and Mr. Stan Thorne.