Dispel the health and safety myth? It's more than my job's worth

I have to admit I have never actually attended the St Albans annual Shrove Tuesday pancake race, even though it takes place 10 minutes from where I live. In fact, I don’t think I had even heard of it until it was cited as a classic example of health and safety gone mad because one year contestants were told to walk, not run, because of rain.


The tabloid press made much of the decision, saying ‘the crowd went crazy and everyone booed’ and so you’d be forgiven for agreeing with the Daily Mail that it ruined that year’s event.  Oddly, the local press reported it quite differently, saying there was a great atmosphere and some even preferred the revised rules because they were more inclusive.

Just goes to show, you shouldn’t believe always what you read in the paper.  And so now the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is fighting the charge that it's an overbearing killjoy.  In an effort to reclaim health and safety from tabloid hysteria, it has set up a panel to provide quick advice to people who are subject to ridiculous or disproportionate health and safety decisions.

It has quite a job to do.  Health and safety is often used as an excuse for everything that is wrong with modern Britain, and not just by the media.  In slamming the ‘compensation culture’ David Cameron has often put the blame on health and safety.  In January, he vowed to make 2012 the year when ‘we kill of the health and safety culture for good’.  He went on:

 ‘I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year but the year we get a lot of this pointless time wasting out of the British economy and British life once and for all’.

Hmm…that would be the pointless time wasting that’s reduced fatal injuries to employees between 1974 and 2011 by 82 per cent; and reduced reported non-fatal injuries by 76 per cent over the same period, right?  Because if it is, I think I’d rather keep it. 

To be fair to Cameron, and you don’t often see me write that, at least he didn’t fall into the tabloid trap of citing such well known, but trivial, cases of pupils being ordered to wear goggles to play conkers, but to an annual cost of £ billions businesses have to endure to protect themselves against litigation.

Naturally, he fails to mention the human and financial costs of poor health and safety, including the 30 million working days lost to occupational ill health and injury at an annual cost of £30bn to society; or the more than 200 people killed at work every year.  But that’s politicians for you.

Launching the new panel, called the Myth Busters Challenge Panel, the HSE published a list of the worst myths about the misuse of health and safety legislation.  As well as the crazy conker example, it includes office workers being banned from putting up Christmas decorations, trapeze artists being ordered to wear hard hats, the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game being deemed a health and safety risk, banning candyfloss on a stick in case people trip and impale themselves, outlawing hanging baskets in case people bump their heads on them, not allowing flip flops in the workplace and ordering graduates not to throw their mortar boards in the air.

In exposing the myths, the HSE points out that health and safety is being used as an excuse for decisions that, in fact, have nothing to do with health and safety legislation.  For example, it says the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and not worth bothering about; if kids deliberately hit each other over the head, that’s a discipline not a health and safety issue.

Having said that, it’s probably wise not to balance on swivel chairs when hanging up the tinsel or wear flip flops on a construction site.  But, and here I find myself alarmingly agreeing with employment minister Chris Grayling, these examples are about common sense, not legislation.

In this, at least, Grayling scores a few points by not fanning the flames of the fiction that health and safety laws were behind a ban on kite flying on a beach and a school’s decision to ban football games unless the ball was made of sponge.  One up, at least on the hapless Lord Young, not Cameron’s most astute appointment, who angered unions and lawyers when he was asked to review health and safety laws by labelling many of them ‘absolute nonsense’ and a ‘joke’.

However, I am still not totally convinced the government isn’t a bit schizophrenic when it comes to health and safety laws.  The chair of the panel, Judith Hackitt, said:

‘Over the years we’ve seen health and safety invoked – wrongly – in defence of some pretty absurd decisions…[that] undermine public confidence in the true task of health and safety, which is to manage serious risks to life and limb in Britain’s workplaces.


‘This is a great opportunity for the public to stand with us against the jobsworths and cynics who are trivialising health and safety to suit their own ends’.

I’m just wondering if she includes government ministers in that, because it seems to me that in the last two years we have been subjected to a succession of them bemoaning the damage the health and safety compensation culture is doing not only to the economy, but society as a whole.  This is their excuse for  changing the system to make it harder for those who have been injured or contracted a disease at work to get compensation.  Surely this makes them the biggest jobsworths of all. 

Posted in: Employment law

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