In his Keynote Speech at the Health & Safety North Conference and Exhibition held in Bolton earlier this month, HSE Deputy Chief Executive Kevin Myers charted a list of reviews and critiques that health and safety has been subject to since the present government has come into power.
From Lord Young’s Common Sense, Common Safety to the Government’s Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone and Professor Löfstedt’s, Reclaiming health & safety for all, not to mention a survey of red tape, and ongoing reviews of HSE work; health and safety has been under constant and close scrutiny.
So given news that health and safety is to be examined once again in a new research project you would be forgiven for wondering what there is left to consider. But this time it’s different.
In a two year study, the University of Reading in partnership with the University of Portsmouth, and funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), is to examine how the social standing and perceived value of health and safety regulation has changed over the last 50 years. They want to explore the juxtaposition between the negative perception of health and safety, and the reality of a legal framework, which they suggest is not only fit for purpose, but revered and emulated the world over.
The two-year project will see researchers interview key stakeholders from health and safety practice, including former regulators, politicians and policymakers, workers and trade union safety representatives, employers and managers, and others who have played an active role in the law in this area over the last half-century. Focus groups will assess public attitudes and perceptions towards health and safety regulation and analysis will examine the changing representation and arguments about it over time.
Dr Mike Esbester, from the University of Portsmouth’s School of Social, Historical and Literary Studies and the project’s co-investigator, says: "This is a great opportunity to look back at what has changed and why, and to identify the turning points in public perceptions of health and safety in recent years. One of the particular strengths of what we’re doing is that it combines historical perspectives and contemporary practice – we want to see how the past influences the present, and how we might use that insight to make a difference in the future.”
In his keynote speech Kevin Myers went on to discuss how health and safety has become a damaged brand resulting in people being detuned to its real message: "That health and safety done right is an enabler to business which allows dangerous things to be done in a way where people aren’t exposed to damage as a consequence.” As Kevin highlighted, the HSE is making some progress in challenging negative perceptions through measures such as its Myth Busters panel. Let’s hope ‘The Changing Legitimacy of Health and Safety regulation, 1960-2013’ study which begins this autumn will build on that.