"We must ensure we don't throw the baby out with the bath water"
23 January 2013
Brian Prout, takes a moment to reflect on the progress that has been made in health & safety in recent years and considers what impact Lord Young's review into health & safety might have Irecently decided to catch up o
Irecently decided to catch up on the news online with a nice cup of tea and a jaffa cake.
Firstly, the Health and Safety Executive in Scotland had announced that the number of people killed in workplace accidents had once again fallen. Between 1 April 2009 and 31 March 2010, 23 workers were killed at work in Scotland.
Although this figure is still wholly unacceptable, it nonetheless represents further, positive progress, and is a reduction of 3 from 26 in the previous year.
The corresponding UK-wide figure was a record low of 151.
As a health and safety professional, specialising in training and consultancy work, I took a few seconds out to award myself an extra jaffa cake by way of congratulations for the tiny little contribution that I might have played in this improvement.
Next, I "Googled" health and safety, only to be met with the same tired old parodies on health and safety in some parts of the general media, which I feel does our industry so much harm.
The particular one I stumbled upon concerned a local fete, where apparently the egg and spoon race could only be carried out by competitors if they walked the course, as opposed to running, due to recent rainfall making the ground slippy. This decision had been made, apparently, on the grounds of health and safety, as it "breached regulations". Nothing more was discussed on this legal concept and no specific regulations were mentioned.
I felt a cold shiver up my spine. As a trainer and consultant, I usually pride myself on keeping bang up-to-date on changes in health and safety. The new "Egg and Spoon Race (Rain) Regulations" must have passed me by.
I rather suspect that the true reason for the decision was, among other things, the fear of litigation, and absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with health and safety.
There are, of course, dozens of other examples.
This fear is largely unfounded. The old phrase, "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" has never been more apt.
There is a requirement to protect people "so far as is reasonably practicable", and this has either been lost in the mists of time, is misunderstood, or people simply aren't aware of it. It equates, of course, to a balance of risk against cost. If the risk is minimal, so should the cost in dealing with the risk. There is nothing new there. In the common law field of negligence, the similar concept of "reasonable" care can be traced back to the case of Blyth v Birmingham Waterworks Company in 1856! It's time to get rid of the reputation of health and safety as being some big evil monster, there to prevent this and to restrict that. In fact, health and safety legislation bans very little.
In Scotland, we have had our fair share of high profile occupational disasters, sadly, including Piper Alpha in 1988 and the ICL Plastics explosion in Maryhill, Glasgow, in 2004. Health and safety is there to enable people to work in a safe manner, and to prevent shocking accidents such as these.
We mustn't allow ourselves to become an overly risk averse society. We need exposure to risk. Children need exposure to risk to prepare them for future life. I know a disproportionate number of health and safety professionals who enjoy skiing, white water rafting, mountain climbing and other pastimes that some may consider "high risk".
I suspect that some may even let their kids enter the egg and spoon race on sports day.
Done safely and with the correct controls, any activity can be carried out safely.
It remains to be seen what impact Lord Young's review of the health and safety system will bring. Many people will see parallels to the last major review, by Lord Robens in 1972, which made sweeping and wholesale changes over a period of time and gave rise to the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.
We must ensure we don't throw the baby out with the bath water. In the late 60's/early 70's, review was necessary due to the number of disasters, such as Aberfan, as well as the huge range of complex, piecemeal and rigid legislation, together with a general apathy amongst the population.
While it can be argued with justification that the employment demographics have changed drastically in that time, nonetheless the facts speak for themselves. In the UK in 1974, 651 workers died as a result of workplace injury. That's exactly 500 more people than died in the past year. All other statistics, including non-fatal accidents and occupational health, also show massive improvements since 1974.
As health and safety professionals, although we should acknowledge that there is much still to be done, we should be justifiably proud of the improvements and continue the education process.
We should also salute the efforts of the Health and Safety Executive, Institution of Occupational Safety and Health and others who continue to promote the excellent work of our industry and convey the correct message to the public at large.
Brian Prout is a consultant for Aviva Risk Management Solutions as well as a tutor and examiner of IOSH and NEBOSH courses.
Brian will be at Health & Safety '10 Scotland on Stand 64.