Little Evidence Linking Privatisation to Workplace Health and Safety
posted on: Sep 17, 2007
"Profits before people"? A systematic review of the health and safety impacts of privatising public utilities and industries in developed countries
J Epidemiol Community Health 2007; 61: 862-70
Despite continued debate about the public health impacts of privatisation policies, there is actually little evidence to support the arguments that privatisation is either beneficial or detrimental to health and safety standards at work, concludes research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.
This finding applies to injuries affecting both employees and the public. However, privatisation linked to redundancies may lead to employee stress and health problems.
Overall, the research reveals concerns that there is a lack of robust evidence underpinning people's assumptions about how privatisation might influence health and safety standards.
The findings are based on pooled research data (from a systematic review) drawn from 11 studies from a literature search of more than 13000 documents published between 1945 and 2003.
The included studies assessed the health impacts of privatising public utilities, such as transport and energy services, and industries, such as cement and paper, in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.
The only robust evidence of health effects seemed to be increased stress and ill health among employees as a result of redundancies following privatisation.
Eight studies of UK companies presented data on injury rates but analysis showed that the quality of the studies varied considerably.
One UK study analysed routine data on train crash deaths between 1967 and 2002. It found that the rate of accidents per billion train kilometres fell by around 5% every year. The trend started in the era before privatisation in 1996, but continued afterwards.
While the average rate of deaths for each fatal accident increased after 1997, the authors say that this apparent increase could be explained by the random clustering of relatively infrequent events, rather than as the effect of privatisation.
Similarly, bus deregulation was not found to have had little overall impact on injuries.
There was no conclusive evidence that the privatisation of energy industries, including gas, electricity and mining, boosted or reduced the injury rate among employees. However the authors expressed concern that the injury figures from these companies did not include injuries to outsourced employees - many of whom have manual jobs with particular health and safety issues.
Overall, there was no strong evidence to link privatisation with increased injury rates for employees or customers, say the authors, despite critics' claims that privatisation puts "profits before people," or "profits before safety."
Debates about privatisation remain highly divisive as many governments continue to want greater private sector involvement in public services, such as schools, housing, and health.
But they conclude: "Public debates on the health and safety implications of privatisation have a poor empirical base, which policy makers and the research community need to address."
Dr Matt Egan, Medical Research Council Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, Scotland, UK
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