Monday, 29 August 2011

The Absurdities of the Health and Safety Debate

You don’t have to be a tabloid reader to get in a lather at the mere mention of the words “health and safety”...but it certainly helps.
For years now, the populist press have regaled us with tales as comical as restaurants refusing to hand out post-meal toothpicks to their diners, the calling off of Gloucestershire’s wonderfully English cheese rolling race, and most recently, Butlins banning ‘intentional bumping’ on the dodgems.
Some of these, and others, have made it into this week’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) top 10 “bizarre bans,” gleefully picked up and redistributed by Chris Grayling, the employment minister. And to think he almost became home secretary.
Never mind a slow news day, these are the kind of stories that you’d expect to read about on a no news day. Yet, the tabloids have gorged on them with a sense of delight and excitement at another chance to expose meddling bureaucrats and society’s lack of ‘common sense.’
But, bewilderment, at the papers, would be a better response. Whipping the public up into a frenzy seems to be the only reason the tabloids exist anymore.
Devoting such a disproportionate amount of time to something which, if we’re honest, wouldn’t make it into anyone’s top 100 list (let alone top 10) of “most important issues facing Britain” in 2011.
Therefore, why does it dominate so many newspaper column inches, and provoke such hostility, such irrationality?
One theory, a rather plausible one in my view, points to papers such as the Daily Mail and their never-ending crusade to romanticise a Britain we could once cherish and be proud of, but has now been hijacked by pernicious forces, determined to wreck what was once great about this island:
a traditional, nostalgic aspect of British life is threatened by modern, mindless bureaucracy.”
It also feeds in to right wing loathing and mistrust of the all-pervasive ‘nanny state,’ sticking its nose in where it’s not wanted.
Last year’s appointment of Lord Young, charged with carrying out a review of it in law and practice, shows how health and safety has been catapulted from tabloid fodder to direct government intervention, with the Prime Minister personally taking an interest. The recommendations were published last October.
But, beyond the clamour to rage against interfering ‘jobsworths’ and ‘overzealous’ officials, this overshadows the very real progress that health and safety regulations have made in the workplace.
The HSE credits the Health and Safety at Work Act with an 84% reduction in employee fatalities between 1974 and 2010, as well as a 75% fall in non-fatal injuries.
A change in patterns of employment has also helped in bringing down fatal injuries as people have moved from manufacturing and heavy work industries to areas of work with lower risk. The types of injuries and illnesses people pick up has therefore evolved: stress and back complaints, for example, have become more commonplace.
Nevertheless, the TUC reports that there are still as many as 20,000 deaths a year caused by work.
Last year Left Foot Forward, a political blog, reported that only a fraction of deaths and workplace injuries ever came to the attention of the HSE, with it now only investigating a third of safety offences compared to over a decade ago. And, the results of deregulation legislation had ‘emasculated’ the organisation, meaning that: “a business can now expect to be visited once every 38 years.”
All of this will soon be made worse by, you guessed it, government cuts. A 35% cut to its budget will mean HSE inspections being reduced by a further third, despite the fact that a review of worldwide evidence by Dr Courtney Davis of Sussex University found that
inspection plus enforcement are associated with a decline in injury rates of 22% for the following three years.”
The danger with parts of the media’s obsession with the trivial and the farcical is that the whole health and safety industry suffers. Constantly attacked and undermined make it a ripe target for cuts. After all, who’s going to object to taking on an organisation that spoils peoples’ fun for a living?
According to the TUC’s Brendan Barber, Lord Young’s report did nothing to dispel the “myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety.” Instead it uncritically accepted them, whilst neglecting to offer, “a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness.”
Thus, a wasted opportunity. This, together with the ‘bizarre bans’ list, must be music to tabloid ears, safe in the knowledge that they can continue to unearth ever wackier and outlandish examples of ‘health and safety gone mad.”

This article was first published by Left Foot Forward on Monday 29 August 2011

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