It's often said that health and safety has gone to extremes, but is this really the case?

Complaints about ‘excessive’ health and safety rules and restrictions are commonplace. For years, the press has been highly critical of health and safety regulation, using increasingly hysterical headlines. We’ve all read the tabloid stories condemning “health and safety gone mad”.

The reports would have you believe that our lives are being ruined by health and safety rules, leading to the impression that:

  • Accompanying bureaucracy is unnecessary, costly and a waste of time.
  • Required protective measures are something of a public relations gimmick.
  • Regulations prop up a protection industry that’s largely unnecessary in “normal” people’s lives.

Playing it too safe?

It’s important to recognise that people and organisations can be misinformed and over-cautious in their application of heath and safety rules. Perhaps this shouldn’t be so surprising given today’s compensation culture, where employers are fearful of being sued.

However, this fear of backlash has led to health and safety occasionally being taken a little bit (or in some cases, rather a lot) too far.

A ban on conkers? Trapeze artists wearing hard hats?

The sometimes bizarre application of health and safety typically results from a lack of understanding of what’s legally required and/or insufficient experience in undertaking a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment, which leads to an over-interpretation of the regulations.

There has also recently been a disproportionate application of so-called health and safety “blue tape”, in which businesses are pressured into taking unnecessary action as a result of apparent health and safety concerns. While the term “red tape” has long been used to describe the excessive bureaucracy needed to comply with laws, “blue tape” is used to describe rules imposed not by the regulator but by one business on another. For example, where insurers or external consultants insist on an abundance of paper-based risk assessments when other methods could provide effective assurance that risks are well-managed.

Just an excuse?

Health and safety is even sometimes used by organisations as an excuse for limiting activities that they don’t really want to do. Next time you hear of health and safety being blamed for an organisation not doing something, ask yourself “What was the real reason behind the decision?” As Judith Hackitt, former Health and Safety Executive (HSE) chair, comments: “We often read in the papers about ‘Health and safety gone mad’, when no legislation exists to ban conkers, or make children wear goggles when using Blu-Tack”.

“I think we’re wrongly blamed for a lot of these stories. In reality, we become a convenient excuse to hide behind”.

The HSE stresses that the legislation exists to ensure employers protect workers, not to ensure every aspect of our lives is risk-free. Unfortunately though, it’s the bizarre decisions that attract huge media attention, and the loud scathing headlines only serve to increase negative attitudes toward health and safety.

Has health and safety gone mad?

To fairly answer this question, it’s necessary to put aside the bizarre examples of over-the-top health and safety decisions and look at the wider available evidence. Objectively, the answer appears to be no.

According to HSE statistics, the number of fatal injuries to employees has fallen by 84% since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and the regulations made under it. Stronger legal provisions, combined with better training and improved technology, have seen fatal injuries steadily reducing each year to a figure of 147 in 2018/19. Non-fatal injuries have also similarly declined.

The dramatic reductions unquestionably weaken arguments that health and safety has gone too far. Indeed, one could reasonably speculate that if the 1974 Act hadn’t been passed, the number of work-related fatalities would still be sky high. Of course, it could be argued that the number of workplace deaths is still too high, and that, in fact, health and safety hasn’t gone far enough.

The role of common sense

If there is a problem with health and safety, it’s in the way it’s misrepresented. Far too much attention is given to the barmy examples of “elf n’ safety” and not enough to how tightened legal rules, risk assessments and improved working practices have helped significantly reduce workplace fatalities and serious injuries and ill health.

Most of today’s excessive health and safety decisions are borne out of a genuine desire to try and do the right thing and remove the risk of injury or death. However, rather than applying common sense, the potential risks are greatly overstated and very low-risk activities banned unnecessarily. Maintaining a safe workplace doesn’t mean putting a stop to any task with an element of risk. The 1974 Act pivotally provides that every employer must, “so far as is reasonably practicable”, ensure the health, safety and welfare of employees and protect others affected by their activities. What’s “reasonably practicable” should be a simple balancing act, in which real risks are weighed up against what measures can reasonably be put in place to remove or reduce them. Carrying out a risk assessment is probably what most people would class as using common sense – identifying real dangers and taking reasonable precautions.

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Final thoughts

Over-the-top reactions to health and safety mislead and distract us from the real issue, which is to protect individuals and organisations by preventing incidents that can cause harm. Everyone involved with health and safety should therefore make sure that ‘daft’ decisions don’t take away from the importance of keeping workplaces safe. What matters is that employers understand the importance of effective health and safety regulation and work with their employees to ensure provisions are sensibly applied.

Strike the right balance with health and safety

Not sure where to begin with health and safety management? It can be easy to do too much, or worse, too little – but proportionate advice can be hard to find.

At Ellis Whittam, we understand the pressures placed on businesses when it comes to meeting your health and safety responsibilities. Our unlimited, fixed-fee Health & Safety service is specifically designed to reduce, not add to, this burden by helping you to manage real risks and identify commercial solutions to your compliance.

To enquire about personalised support for your organisation, call 0345 226 8393 or request your free consultation using the button below.

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29 September 2020 | 09:00 – 16:30

Director of Health & Safety Services

Nick Wilson

Health and safety should be a priority for any business but ensuring compliance can often feel like a daunting task. We’re here to help you turn complex regulations into sensible, proportionate controls.

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