Wandering around the stunning Transylvanian countryside recently I saw blokes with no safety glasses hacking at trees with chainsaws as splinters flew around, scarily precarious complex ladder systems and death defying taxi driving.
All of which brought out my inner health and safety geek. However, I was assured by locals that working conditions have been improving in recent times as EU legislation has begun to be followed. Nonetheless it made me ponder on the progress the UK has made in protecting workers
The hugely important “six-pack regulations” implementing EU directives were greeted with horror by some employers: surely the world will grind to a halt if we try to stop people lifting badly stacked overweight boxes or stop cleaners using eye-watering chemical concoctions to bleach the detritus left by sticky fingered children.
Amazingly, after the regulations were implemented the earth did not stop spinning, but a lot of workers were able to go home at night without chronic back pain or work-induced asthma.
The “evil EU bureaucrats” then had the audacity to interfere with working hours. At that time I led the negotiations on the introduction of the working time regulations for NHS support staff. The management negotiator was also a health and safety bod, so we quickly agreed that overwork was a bad thing, annual leave was good, and having regular breaks was probably quite sensible.
After significant discussion we also agreed that if a job involved sleeping in at work this was not really free time and so should count as working time. We reached the first national working time agreement, which set the tone for many others and annoyed the hell out of bad employers who were happy to knacker their staff out.
In the current climate I was not surprised to see the Daily Telegraph frothing that the working time regulations were target number one in their list of “red tape” that needs sweeping away. Their main justification for getting rid of the regulations was that “surgeons” (no evidence provided of who or how many) are unhappy as the regulations allegedly interfere with junior doctors’ training (or stop them being driven into the ground during their on-the-job training). Luckily we have a more enlightened approach in education.
The Department for Education (DfE) is committed to reducing the workload of teachers. A series of reports have highlighted steps to help teachers reduce their workload and a number of surveys have highlighted the problems teachers face.
Hopefully excellent news if you are a teacher – but what about support staff? There is no mention of them in all but one of the numerous workload documents the government has produced over the last couple of years. There have been no support staff representatives on any government workload panels and when I raise this with civil servants they shift uneasily and say support staff aren’t in the remit that they have been set by government. Not surprising as I can’t recall a government minister having anything positive to say about support staff for at least the last five years.
Our regular survey of support staff regularly shows that a lot suffer from workload problems. Last year, of 14,500-plus support staff respondents, 55 per cent said they were struggling with workload, 52 per cent reported stress, 13 per cent found it impossible to cope, 40 per cent felt unable to report concerns, and of those who did 56 per cent said that nothing happened as a result.
The DfE knows the problems as the one document they did produce on support staff highlighted that workload issues were similar to those of teachers. So why don’t ministers want reports that cover all staff?
Maybe any moves to reduce support staff workload would be meaningless when their jobs are the first to go and remaining colleagues are being asked to cover their work? I fear that the government doesn’t give a damn about support staff and the troglodyte wing of the fourth estate is braying for freedom to work them into the ground.