Government plans to exempt hundreds of thousands of businesses from regular health and safety inspections in a bid to boost business growth have been condemned by the trade unions and Thompsons.

The announcements repeat the mantra about cutting the so-called burden of health and safety red tape. Ministers say that, from April next year, businesses will only face Health and Safety Executive or local authority inspections if they are operating in higher risk areas such as construction, or if they have an incident or a track record of poor performance.

There is also a pledge to table legislation next month so that businesses will only be held liable for civil damages in health and safety cases if they can be shown to have acted negligently. It is thought that this refers to the principle of “strict liability” in health and safety regulations, where businesses can automatically be held liable for damages for breach of a statutory duty.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said the proposals will put the health of millions of workers at risk:

“Contrary to myths peddled by ministers, the UK is facing an occupational health epidemic. Over 20,000 people die every year as a result of a disease they got through their work and a further 1.9 million people are living with an illness caused by their work.

“Some of the 'low risk' workplaces identified by the government, such as shops, actually experience high levels of workplace injuries. This will only get worse if employers find it easier to ignore safety risks.”

Tom Jones of Thompsons Solicitors added:

“Seeking to second guess what is and is not safe in an attempt to distinguish between high and low risk workplaces is a dangerous game for the government to play. Which minister will explain to a widow why there was no inspection of a so called safe workplace?

“Reducing inspections of so-called lower risk workplaces pays no regard for basic health and safety standards that apply across Europe.

“Without seeing the detail of the legislation intended to ensure that businesses will only be held liable for civil damages in personal injury claims if they can be shown to have acted negligently, it is difficult to understand what the government means or how it will repeal existing liability laws.

“The fact is, as the government’s own statistics show, workplace accident compensation claims have been falling year on year. And yet, rather than celebrate and increase that trend, the government goes in for cheap publicity that deliberately conflates issues of health and safety and civil justice. Making it more difficult for genuinely injured people to claim compensation, leaving them more reliant on the NHS and benefits, will do nothing for economic growth.”