The establishment and control of acceptable standards of safety and health at work is universally regarded as a function of government, even though the legal responsibility for compliance rests with the employer. (It should be noted that in many countries, safety standards are established by consensus between manufactures, users, insurers, public and government and then adopted or referenced by government into regulations.) Government provides a range of safety services in order to discharge its function. In this context, government includes both national, regional and provincial authorities.
One of the most important services supporting safety in the workplace is the legislative framework within which it must operate, and the task of providing this framework is a vital function of government. Such legislation should be comprehensive in its scope and application, reflect international standards as well as national needs, give consideration to established, proven industry safe practices and provide for the means to carry its intentions into practical effect. Safety and health legislation which is based on extensive consultation with the social partners, industry and the community stands a much greater chance of being properly observed and respected, and therefore contributes significantly to sound standards of protection.
The legislative framework, although important, must be effectively translated into practical action at the level of the enterprise. A vital government service is the creation of an effective inspectorate to carry the law into effect. Government must therefore establish an inspectorate, supply it with adequate resources in terms of finance and personnel, and provide it with sufficient powers to do its work.
Safety and Health Information
A key service is that of publicity for safety and health. This function is not of course exclusive to government; safety associations, employers’ groups, trade unions and consultants can all play a part in ensuring a greater awareness of legal requirements, of standards, of technical solutions and of new hazards and risk. Government may take a leading role in offering guidance on compliance with legislation and on compliance with standards governing safety practices, ranging from acceptable methods of machinery guarding to publicizing tables of exposure limits to hazardous substances.
Government should also provide the stimulus in identifying suitable topics for specific campaigns and initiatives. Such activities are usually carried out in cooperation with employers’ associations and trade unions, and are often derived from analysis of government, industry and association statistics relating to accidents and ill health. In considering its publicity and information strategy, government must ensure that it reaches not only the more sophisticated and developed industries but also those with very limited knowledge and awareness of safety and health matters. This is particularly important in developing countries and those with economies heavily dependent upon agriculture and upon the family as the unit of employment.
The collection, analysis and publication of statistics on safety and health is an important service. Statistics provide the inspectorates and their social partners with the raw material that enables them to identify emerging trends or shifting patterns in accident and ill-health causation and to assess, in measurable terms, the effectiveness of national policies, of specific campaigns and of standards of compliance. Statistics can also provide some degree of comparative standards and of achievement on an international basis.
The accuracy of the statistical information on accidents is clearly of prime importance. Some countries have an accident reporting system which is wholly separate from the social benefit or injury compensation system. Reliance is placed on a legal requirement that accidents be reported to the enforcing authority. Statistical studies have shown that there can be a significant shortfall in the reporting of accidents (other than fatalities) under this system. Up to 60% of accidents in some industries are not reported to the enforcing authorities. This shortfall can only devalue the statistics which are produced. The integrity and accuracy of accident and ill-health statistics must be a priority for government.
Safety training is another area in which service may be provided by government. Most safety and health legislation features requirements for adequate training. The extent to which government is directly involved in organizing and providing training varies considerably. At the highest levels of training—that is, for the safety professionals—the work is usually undertaken at universities and colleges of technology. Direct government input at this level is relatively uncommon although government scientists, lawyers and technologists from inspectorates often do contribute as lecturers and by providing funding and training materials.
A similar pattern exists at the lower level of skills training for safety. Educational courses for workers are often conducted by industry, trade or training associations with an input and funding from the inspectorates, as are courses which are designed to increase the safety awareness of workers. The function of government is less to conduct and direct training services, than to stimulate and encourage non-governmental organizations to do this work, and to contribute directly wherever appropriate. More direct assistance can be provided through government subsidies to assist in defraying the costs of training to companies. Much of the material on which safety training is based is provided by official government publications, notes of guidance and formally published standards.
Services for Small Businesses
The problem of furnishing service to small businesses is singularly complex. There is the very real need to provide sympathetic help and encouragement to an important element of the national and local economy. At the same time there is a need to ensure that this be done effectively without lowering the standards of protection for employees and possibly endangering their safety and their health. In attempting to address this complexity, the service provided by government plays a key role.
Many governments provide a particular service to small enterprises which includes the management of safety and health. This service is provided in a variety of ways, including, for example, special “start-up” packs of information which provide (1) details on means of complying in practical terms with legal requirements, (2) facts as to where to find sources of information and (3) a contact point with the inspectorates. Some inspectorates have staff dedicated to dealing with the particular needs of small businesses and, in conjunction with trade associations, provide seminars and meetings where safety and health issues can be constructively discussed in a nonconfrontational atmosphere.
Research is another service provided by government, either directly through supporting its own laboratories and research programmes on safety and health problems, or indirectly by providing grants to independent research organizations for specific projects. Health and safety research may be divided into two broad categories, as follows:
- forensic research, exemplified by the research that follows major accidents in order to determine their causes
- longer-term research which investigates, for example, exposure levels for potentially hazardous substances.
There is also laboratory service which provides facilities for such tests as the analysis of samples counts, and for approvals systems for protective equipment. This service is important both for the inspectorates and for the social partners concerned in validating health standards in enterprises. There is debate whether government should maintain laboratory and research facilities, or whether these functions might more properly be the responsibility of universities and independent research units. But these arguments are about means rather than about basic purpose. Few would dispute that the research function in its broadest sense is a vital government service to safety and health, whether the government acts through its own facilities or stimulates and provides resources to non-governmental organizations to do the work.
Finally, the government provides a service via its representational role within the international community. Many safety and health problems are international in character and cannot be confined within national boundaries. Cooperation between governments, the establishment of internationally accepted standards for hazardous substances, the exchange of information between governments, support for international organizations dealing with safety and health—all these are the functions of government, and the effective discharge of these duties can only serve to enhance both the standing and the standards of safety and health nationally and internationally.