Government plans to abolish safety inspections in thousands of businesses across the UK will put the health of millions of workers at risk the TUC has warned at its annual Congress in Brighton.
New rules are to be introduced in April 2013, under which checks will no longer be routinely carried out on premises such as shops, offices, pubs and clubs which are considered to be low risk. Under the new rules, health and safety inspections will only be carried out in businesses considered to be higher-risk, such as construction and food production, or where there have been accidents or a record of poor performance.
The government has announced that legislation will be introduced in October which will only hold businesses liable for civil damages in health and safety cases if they can be shown to have acted negligently.
Responding to plans outlined by Business Secretary Vince Cable, TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: "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.
"This epidemic will only be stopped by ensuring that employers obey the law, and when every employer knows their workplace can be visited at any time.
"Health and safety regulation is not a burden on business, it is a basic protection for workers" said Mr Barber. "Cutting back on regulation and inspections will lead to more injuries and deaths as result of poor safety at work."
Business MInister Michael Fallon has said that the legislation wil inject "fresh impetus" into the government's drive to cut red tape.
Bob Crow, leader of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) union described the moves as an "all-out attack on safety" which will have "lethal consequences for workers and the public alike as businesses are given the green light to cut corners".