Crisis of enforcement: The decriminalisation of death and injury at work

Professor Steve Tombs and Dr David Whyte
Tuesday, 17 June 2008

At least twice as many people die from fatal injuries at work than are victims of homicide, this latest report suggests.

The report found that at least 1,300 people died as a result of fatal occupational injuries in 2005-06 in England and Wales, compared with 765 homicide victims. Non-fatal workplace injuries requiring hospitalisation were also likely to be greater that year than those needing such treatment following the violent offences formally recorded as crimes.

The report, A crisis of enforcement, argues that the recent trend towards the `light touch' regulation of business has in effect `decriminalised' death and injury at work. Serious incidents are significantly underreported, the authors claim. A reduction in the capacity of bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive to inspect business and take appropriate action has led to a situation where the vast majority of the most serious injuries, as well as many deaths, are not subject to any form of investigation. This raises a number of important questions, the authors argue, about whether the current policy preoccupation with `conventional' crimes such as homicide, street violence and theft should be complemented by a much greater focus on workplace crimes and harms.

Professor Steve Tombs said

Violent street crime consumes enormous political, media and academic energy. But, as hundreds of thousands of workers and their families know, it is the violence associated with working for a living that is most likely to kill and hospitalise.

Dr David Whyte said:

HSE enforcement notices fell by 40% and prosecutions fell by 49% between 2001/02 and 2005/06. The collapse in HSE enforcement and prosecution sends a clear message that the government is prepared to let employers kill and maim with impunity.

Richard Garside, director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:

Safety crimes are worthy of greater acknowledgement given the harm caused and the contexts within which they occur. This research raises important questions about what is currently defined as crime, who gets to decide, and how we as a society deal with harmful and dangerous practices.