Regulating Scotland
Executive summary   

Full report

New release

The image above is the site of the Stockline factory explosion, 2004




Regulating Scotland: What works and what does not in occupational and environmental health and what the future may hold
Andrew Watterson and Rory O’Neill. September 2012.

Executive summary

Regulatory approaches to protect our health at work and to prevent pollution of our environment have improved by increments over several decades. Now these approaches are being questioned. The reasons given to justify a reappraisal vary, but globalisation and recession are the principal reasons cited by business and governments for ripping up the rule book. Some argue current high standards are not affordable in a global economy; others argue there are better, less burdensome alternatives to regulation.

Assumed throughout is that the established safeguards on our lives, our environment and our welfare are costly, and it is a cost we can no longer afford to pay. But poor health too comes at a cost. Scotland has one the highest rates of workplace sickness absence in the UK, and work-related ill-health and injuries are responsible for about a quarter of this. It is a sizeable and particularly preventable slice of the total sick leave toll. The contribution of poor environmental standards is poorly quantified, but is certainly real and certainly substantial.

This is not a cost borne equally across Scottish society. A much greater burden, witnessed by greatly increased mortality and morbidity, is seen the lower you travel down the socioeconomic scale. Poverty, a poor living and working environment and job insecurity are substantial contributory factors to this health inequity. It concentrates risks in sections of the community, many of which are easily identified and could be easily targeted for preventive action. However, strategies to address health inequalities in Scotland bypass occupational and environmental health and perpetuate this disadvantage.

This report presents an economic as well as a health case for retaining and improving regulations and their enforcement. Evidence in this report challenges the view that regulation inhibits job creation, innovation and economic growth. Instead, it shows only dirty and dangerous businesses have anything to fear from the enforcement of protective safety and environmental regulation. Business, workers and their communities and the public purse can all garner substantial benefits from laws that protect the responsible from the rogues.

This substantial benefit is not reflected in current and proposed practices. The report examines the current policies and programmes that advocate and implement deregulatory and ‘better regulatory’ actions by governments and agencies dealing with occupational and environmental health and safety. It analyses the evidence or lack of evidence underpinning such policies and how, within Scotland, the deregulatory agenda has emerged to shape the thinking of the leaders of agencies dealing with these subjects. It concludes unfounded claims of burdens on business are combined with skewed cost calculations to concoct a wholly unsustainable – economically, socially and environmentally – argument for deregulation.

The regulatory agencies responsible for environmental and workplace health and safety are already hobbled by a rapid loss of staff and resources. Overall HSE staffing in Scotland has fallen by over 5 per cent since 2008; since 2010 the number of frontline field inspectors in the country has fallen by almost 7 per cent. A shift towards less regulation and enforcement is well established, and is accelerating, much of it imposed from Westminster but embraced elsewhere in the name of ‘better regulation’. This retreat from regulation is cost-cutting dressed up as a cost-benefit calculation. It transfers risks to communities and the public purse, while falsely claiming to reduce costs without adverse consequences. It is a process of cost-shifting, not cost-reduction.

The response of regulators to the pressure not to regulate businesses and the environment has not been uniform. The workplace health and safety regulator, the Westminster-controlled Health and Safety Executive (HSE), and the local authorities whose budgets are largely determined by Westminster appear to have had far less freedom to explore and determine enforcement approaches and priorities and staffing policies. Effectively they have been captured and in many respects neutralised by Westminster.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has had far more autonomy and pursued a more rigorous approach to the regulatory options open to it. This has involved substantial investigations of alternative models of regulation and some detailed analyses of the economic aspects of regulation. There has been extensive consultation on what sort of regulatory and enforcement regimes it should adopt, including sectoral unified inspections rather than fragmented uncoordinated ones.

There remain major concerns about SEPA’s proposed reforms of its regulatory and enforcement role, but the transparent process the agency engaged upon has much to commend it to HSE. The UK-controlled workplace health and safety regulator has limited the scope of its consultations to a refashioning of its role to fit the deregulatory template imposed by the UK government. The language of deregulation has become embedded, and a new pairing of functions, marrying protection of life and limb with protection of the economy, has emerged. SEPA has not been unaffected, but neither has it been entirely engulfed by an approach that splits its focus between the economy and environmental health.

A workplace case study presented in the report examines the 2004 ICL/Stockline disaster in Glasgow, which with its death toll of nine was the largest single loss of life in a UK workplace tragedy since Piper Alpha. A second case history looks at the lessons from the 2012 Legionnaires’ disease incident in Edinburgh, which killed three and affected over 100. These examples provide the means to investigate some of the regulatory and enforcement issues in greater depth. They highlight the pitfalls of a shift to a system of regulation where increasingly threadbare and constrained regulators are rarely seen and only very occasionally heard.

We conclude there is no case for deregulation or ‘better regulation’ of occupational and environmental health. Scotland needs effective regulation, with properly resourced and staffed agencies that will safeguard public health better and provide businesses and communities with an equitable base for healthy, safe, economically and physically sustainable activity.

Scotland is well placed to turn the tide on the substantial negative consequences of deregulation by protecting its necessary regulatory regimes that support responsible employers and profitable businesses. This can be done by pioneering and supporting the key principles of precaution and environmental justice linked to empowered employees and strategies such as toxics use reduction. These proposed regulatory alternatives are not a luxury, but can deliver the health and economic benefits necessary if Scotland and its people are to thrive.


Principal lessons of this report are:

Regulation is effective and not a burden


Proper regulation pays


Failing to regulate comes at a price



The Scottish Government should take such measures as are necessary to introduce a fairer system of regulation of workplace and environmental hazards in Scotland, more responsive to those whose health is placed at risk.

  1. Agencies involved in enforcing existing environmental and occupational health and safety law need adequate resources. Recent cuts should be reversed, and budgets and staffing reappraised and set at a level that allows far more frequent and probing inspections with an expectation that criminal breaches will result in enforcement action.

  2. Policy in Scotland to address occupational and environmental risks must have a component dealing with health inequalities, with the active and public support of the Scottish Government. This should include measures to protect vulnerable groups, including temporary workers, those in rural and remote locations, communities facing multiple insults from many pollution sources and workers facing greater risks of occupationally- and environmentally-related diseases. Regulatory practices, including their development, execution and monitoring, should be informed by the active participation of all stakeholders, particularly those placed at risk by potential abuses of workplace and environmental standards and targeted in the environmental context at communities worst affected by pollution.

  3. Novel methods of workplace and community participation should be developed, as well as new methods for assessing how communities and workers are disproportionately affected by their work and environment, to harness local skills and knowledge. These should include a consideration of options for introducing legally-empowered trade union ‘roving safety reps’ with a regional role, encouraging more workplace green reps with an expanded role and establishing environmental justice advocates located in communities to liaise with SEPA and EHOs.

  4. Deregulatory policies and practices should be abandoned and reversed. The drift towards more voluntary measures or self-regulation should be stopped.

  5. Best practice approaches should be investigated and employed; this could include, for example, the development of approaches based on toxics use reduction, the precautionary principle and better whistleblower and employment protection.

  6. Workplace and environmental health and safety regulators should be required to maintain a dedicated focus on health protection, rather than the current trend towards a purpose limited by economic considerations.

  7. Systems of justice should be reappraised. Workplace health and safety and environmental criminals should be prosecuted and penalties should be sufficiently punitive to be a deterrent. Systems of compensation for occupational and environmental diseases should be reviewed and made more equitable. Efforts should be made to establish the extent of ‘cost-shifting’ by businesses guilty of environmental and workplace safety abuses, and this information should be used to inform policies and penalties.

  8. Data systems should be improved to provide better intelligence on the causes and extent of occupationally- and environmentally-related ill-health. This information should be used to inform improved, more responsive and more protective policy and practices. Linkages between NHS Scotland and HSE and SEPA must be improved to aid recognition and remedial action on public health threats.

  9. Serious consideration should be given to the creation of a Scottish Occupational Health and Safety Agency, controlled from Scotland and freed from Westminster’s financial and political control.

  10. Scotland should establish itself as a vocal defender of the environment and workplace standards and of the rights and health of its population, not an apologist for Westminster’s deregulatory obsession or an evidence-blind advocate of the skewed ‘business burdens’ argument that transfers risks and costs to the public and the public purse.