HSE must act decisively to protect our staff, union says

October 6, 2006

Lecturers' union accuses health and safety watchdogs of paying lip service to tackling stress, unreasonable workloads and bullying in the sector, reports Phil Baty

Stress and other work-related illnesses in higher education could rocket in the wake of plans to "water down" enforcement of the law governing health and safety at work, the lecturers' union has warned.

The University and College Union this week demanded that the Government abandon plans to reduce the regulatory burden on employers by shifting towards a "guidance" based approach by the Health and Safety Executive, which reduces the need for "enforcement" action.

The UCU said that the HSE should be using its regulatory and enforcement powers more, not less, in an age where stress and other problems were on the rise.

Roger Kline, head of equality and employment rights at the UCU, said that managers in colleges and universities were paying "lip service" to issues such as stress and bullying at work and other "modern workplace hazards".

"Encouragement has proved insufficient to motivate most further and higher education employers to act," he said.

"If the HSE continues to move away from enforcement - and if there is no cultural change by college and university employers - we shall see more not less serious illness, injury and absence."

A survey earlier this year found that levels of psychological distress among academics can exceed those in high-stress occupations such as accident and emergency doctors and nurses. The report, Wellbeing in the UK Academy, 1998-2004 , found that 49 per cent of academics had stress levels requiring treatment, compared with 44 per cent of A&E consultants and per cent of the general population.

Some 62 per cent of academics said they were not coping with the demands of their jobs.

"While colleges and universities do not have the same intensity of physical hazards as some other sectors, there are major health and safety concerns,"

Mr Kline said. "Stress levels in education, for example, are twice the national average for all sectors. Repetitive strain injury is a serious issue for many keyboard workers.

"The HSE does not enforce occupational health issues as it should. It will ensure that a hole in a floor is fixed or that a guard on a machine is replaced if someone's fingers are cut off, but it has to be pushed on health issues such as stress.

"It has failed to adapt to the modern world and the modern workplace - and so have further and higher education employers."

He said that the recent suicide of an academic at Kingston University, which an inquest had linked to work pressures, showed how important the issue had become.

"People don't often get crushed in roof-falls in coal mines any more but they do get crushed by workloads - as a recent tragedy has shown.

"There is also the question of the bullying that can follow the pressures put on managers to achieve unrealistic targets," he said.

The UCU said that while the HSE was implementing its new strategy to move away from hands-on workplace inspections, figures for fatalities and major injury rates across the UK were rising.

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

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