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Opinion: New HSE consultants register flawed

The Health and Safety Executive recently announced the launch of the Occupational Safety and Health Consultants Register (OSHCR), a repository of information intended to help UK businesses looking for advice and support on managing health and safety. But the register’s narrow focus places too much emphasis on occupational health and safety and too little on process safety.

The creation of the register follows a recommendation by Lord Young of Graffham, in the Government-commissioned Common Sense Common Safety report, that a web-based directory of accredited health and safety consultants should be established. The report, which focuses primarily on the “growing compensation culture” in the UK, makes several propositions regarding health and safety.

Under Raising Standards, Lord Young makes two proposals:

“Professionalise health and safety consultants with a qualification requirement that all consultants should be accredited to professional bodies”

“Establish a web based directory of accredited health & safety consultants”.

HSE reacted to these proposals by creating the OSHCR. To be accepted into the registry, a consultant must be a member of one of the participating bodies in the scheme. Yet the main focus of these bodies is on occupational health and safety. Expertise in process safety and regulations including the Control of Major Accident Hazards (COMAH) regulations and Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (DSEAR) is thus neglected.

As HSE has previously highlighted, the distinction between occupational health and safety and process safety is an important one, and the two should not be confused. Expertise in process safety is crucial in the prevention of major accidents. Indeed, an investigation into the fatal explosion and fire at the BP Texas City Refinery installation found that BP was preoccupied with occupational safety targets – such as reducing lost time due to accidents – at the expense of process safety.

HSE should, therefore, do one of two things: either extend the OSHCR to cover all fields of health and safety; or clarify the description of the register to ensure that users understand its scope and limitations. The first option would require participation of other bodies involved in process safety, such as IChemE.

Lord Young also makes other proposals worthy of examination:

“The UK should take the lead in cooperating with other member states to ensure that EU health and safety rules for low risk businesses are not overly prescriptive, are proportionate and do not attempt to achieve the elimination of all risk.”

It is unclear how any register of consultants will help to ensure that advice given is proportionate and not over-cautious. Most consultants are honest but driven to give over-cautious advice because of external pressures from clients fearing litigation or insurance companies wanting to avoid paying indemnities, as Lord Young recognises elsewhere in his report.

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