An 80-page report by Stirling University due to be published tomorrow blames a steep rise in major workplace injuries on deep cuts in funding, staff, inspections and enforcement. Just one in 20 major injuries are now investigated by the HSE, and only one in 170 results in prosecution.
Over the past five years the number of major and fatal injuries at work in the UK has increased by 2700 per year, the report says. In the same period, the proportion investigated by HSE has fallen from 8% to 5%, while those prosecuted dropped from 1% to 0.6%.
The HSE's budget has been cut by 13% from £228 million in 2009-10 to £199m in 2011-12, with further cuts planned. Its staff numbers have been reduced by 22% from 3702 in 2010 to 2889 in June this year.
As a result, the HSE is becoming a "threadbare" agency, say the report's authors, Professors Rory O'Neill and Andrew Watterson, from Stirling University's Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group: "Workplace safety inspections are now so infrequent it is unlikely most workers will ever encounter an inspector in a working lifetime."
They say the HSE increasingly expects companies to regulate themselves by monitoring and reporting on their own performance. Such "statutory neglect" was implicated in the Deepwater Horizon oil explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and other disasters, they argue.
"Between the catastrophes, the slow disaster of more routine environmental and workplace harm continues unabated and largely unpoliced, at a massive cost to the public purse and the health of the nation," O'Neill said.
"Only dirty and dangerous businesses have anything to fear from the enforcement of protective safety and environmental regulation. Business, workers, communities and the public purse can all garner substantial benefits from laws that protect the responsible from the rogues."
O'Neill and Watterson argue that the business-inspired government agenda to "cut red tape" with "light-touch" regulation is misguided. "The approach is based on skewed cost-benefit calculations that fail to factor in the much greater financial benefits of proper enforcement of regulations," they said.
Watterson says Scotland is uniquely placed to strengthen health and safety regulation. It suffers higher workplace sickness rates than the rest of the UK, yet only 1% of the 2500 fatal and major injuries per year results in prosecutions.
The HSE has only one part-time medic to cover Scotland's 2.5 million workers, Watterson says. "Failure to act now to improve poor regulation and enforcement elevates a spurious business costs argument above a real and substantial cost to human health, society and the public purse."
The HSE has failed to learn from a series of disasters in Scotland, he says, including the 1988 Piper Alpha explosion in the North Sea, the 2004 Stockline gas explosion in Glasgow and this year's outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in Edinburgh.
Prospect, the trade union that represents HSE inspectors and specialist staff, has warned that cutbacks have reduced proactive inspections of high-hazard sites by one-third, while most workplaces are exempt from unannounced, preventive inspections.
Watterson and O'Neill also criticise the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) for cutting back on monitoring and inspections in the name of "better regulation". Two weeks ago the Sunday Herald reported that the number of industrial sites inspected by Sepa had been cut by one-third in a year.
The HSE pointed out that the responsibility for ensuring health and safety rested with those who create the risk. "Inspections are not, and never could be, a substitute for companies ensuring they comply with the law, especially when the risks are very well-known," said a spokesman.
"HSE has broadly maintained the number of inspectors in Scotland over the past five years. Together with local authority inspectors carrying out inspections and investigations, they work with industry and employees and their representatives to help them help themselves in managing risks."
The spokesman added: "Where there are serious breaches of the law and the evidence is available, HSE will put the facts to the procurator fiscal who decides whether a prosecution should be taken."