Improving Outcomes from Health and Safety: a Report to Government by the Better Regulation Executive was published last month. It found that, as a result of time constraints and confusion about their legal obligations, SMEs were spending in excess of £300 million a year on unnecessary administrative and consultancy costs.
Recent analysis estimates that the market for specialist safety support is worth between £700m and £1 billion a year, with services to SMEs a key growth area.
The study revealed that some SMEs were receiving off-the-shelf, generic reports which provided no business-specific advice. The report dismisses some of the H&S recommendations made by the consultants as “thinly disguised sales opportunities”.
Some SMEs felt they had been coerced into paying for H&S support services that were not always necessary or could have been done effectively in-house.
A review extract reads: “Smaller businesses are vulnerable to third parties, who exaggerate what the law requires … The experience of employers who use consultants for health and safety support is variable. While some report good experiences, others pay for support they could undertake in-house more cheaply or they take action, on the advice of consultants, that is not required by the law and which provides little or no benefit to workplace health and safety.”
The news will not surprise specialist contractors, who have long argued that the plethora of national prequalification schemes – of which H&S compliance is part of the core criteria – places unreasonable burdens on their businesses.
Earlier this year Tony Land, the owner of Heatflow Mechanical Services, said m&e firms were routinely paying over £2,000 to consultants to ensure they met a prequalification scheme’s H&S requirement, making them eligible to tender for public sector contracts.
The Contractors Health and Safety Assessment Scheme is so concerned with the issue it urges firms to fill in its H&S assessment form themselves.
Commenting on the review’s findings, Richard Jones, policy and technical director with the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said: “We are very familiar with these criticisms and recognise there is an issue with some unscrupulous H&S consultants. The problem is that there is no legal requirement preventing anyone from setting up as a consultant.”
Mr Jones said the Department of Work and Pensions was examining ways to ensure H&S consultants were accredited to a reputable organisation before setting up.
He added: “From what I gather, the DWP is seeking to introduce minimum levels of experience and expertise.
“We suspect that a lot of the poor advice comes from consultants who are unqualified. Firms need to view the selection of H&S consultants in very much the same way they would consumer protection. Businesses have a right to be assured that the consultants they select are competent.”
A spokesman for professional services firm Arcadis AYH, said: “I’m surprised about some consultants overcharging. But I can understand why they would take this approach, given the current economic climate.
“It would surprise me even more if the larger firms were doing this because they have bigger businesses to maintain and so need to take a longer-term approach. Like us, many work across a number of different sectors – H&S consultancy support services is only one aspect of our business – and would never put the business at risk by overselling one service.”