The myth of Health & Safety gone mad

Tabloid outrage about children wearing goggles to play conkers or pancake races dating back to medieval times being cancelled in the name of Health & Safety is all too familiar.

Exaggeration, half-truth, generalisation and myth-making has created one great big Health & Safety joke. It’s become part of our social fabric.

Sharper readers will hopefully note stories are often grossly exaggerated or daft decisions are taken to bypass organising something properly or paying insurance or because of a supposed compensation culture (itself a myth – claim numbers have overall remained the same).

But others will no doubt be taken in by the myth.

Health & Safety professionals are well used to being joshed about their work. But things have taken an increasingly worrying turn…

Political punchbag

How often do you hear politicians banging on about red tape?

Remember Prime Minister David Cameron’s 2012 New Year’s resolution to ‘kill off’ our ‘over-the-top’ Health & Safety culture? He said Health & Safety legislation was an ‘albatross around the neck of British businesses’ costing billions of pounds a year.

If only we could take scissors and cut through the ‘mindless bureaucracy’ then the British economy would surge off into the stratosphere leaving the EU to eat our dust!

The government’s 2017 manifesto said it will deliver a strong economy built on better regulation. But ‘better’ also seems to mean ‘less’ regulation. Although the manifesto accepts regulation is necessary to protect people, it says ‘poor and excessive government regulation limits growth for no good reason’.

The government therefore aims to regulate more ‘efficiently’ by saving £9bn through the ‘One In Two Out Rule’.

What’s the One In Two Out Rule?

Any time a new regulation is introduced, policymakers have to get rid of or amend an existing regulation.

‘Regulatory austerity’ isn’t only a UK marvel. One of Donald Trump’s first priorities on entering the White House was to introduce a version of ‘One In Two Out’.

But even if a new regulation is good, does it necessarily follow the old ones are bad?

With deregulation, the focus is firmly put on short-term cost savings to business. Cost reductions are flaunted as policy successes without thinking about the longer-term and wider human or social impact.

But Health & Safety legislation over the past 35 years has resulted in Britain seeing falls in workplace deaths of 81% and other reported workplace injuries of 72%.

This represents one of the best safety records in Europe. And it isn’t just workers who benefit:

  • there are savings to the economy and society from lives saved
  • workforces are healthier and attendance records substantially better – some large employers estimate saving millions of pounds

Unfortunately, Britain’s success story remains largely untold. Good Health & Safety is not by its very nature sexy or news. So public, media and political opinion of Health & Safety staggers between:

  • accidents and catastrophes – with a dramatic search for truth and blame
  • dreary caricatured jobsworths – what Jeremy Paxman called ‘pointless bureaucrats imposing ludicrous requests on people’

The danger is that more people will be encouraged to believe Health & Safety is an irritation rather than a necessity to protect life and limb.


But beyond the tomfoolery are ‘real’ issues such as getting better Health & Safety support to small and medium-sized businesses.

SMEs create almost 60% of private sector jobs and half of UK turnover. However, SME manufacturers have double the rate of deaths and amputations than in large workplaces.

While Health & Safety rules are often mocked, they’re more often essential. And the effect of removing regulations without considering their role is entirely predictable. Important protection will be removed leaving people exposed to quite unnecessary risks – often of the most serious nature.

There are suggestions ‘cutting red tape’ was one of the causes of the Grenfell fire. It will be interesting to see what the public enquiry says about regulation and enforcement. Might many lives have been saved had regulations been in place and followed more closely?

Mark Twain said ‘a lie can travel halfway round the world while the truth is putting on its shoes’.

Let’s hope the Health & Safety myth stops traveling long enough to give truth a chance to put its shoes on!

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