Health and safety gone mad? Don’t blame us!

The Health and Safety Executive loves peddling the myth that it isn’t to blame for our risk-averse culture.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Everybody loves a list, so Britain’s Health and Safety Executive is playing to the crowd with today’s release of its Top 10 bizarre health and safety ‘bans’.

Straight in at number 10, banpickers (to channel the spirit of the late, great Alan Freeman), it’s the decision to prevent children from taking part in a sack race at a school sports day. At nine, it’s a ban on playing football in the playground – unless the ball is made of sponge. At number eight, we have the decision not to use pins to stick on Remembrance Day poppies – just in case someone trying to honour the dead of many horrific wars stabs themself in the ickle pinkie.

Banning pupils from using monkey bars in a playground unsupervised is clearly not a ‘climber’ at number seven, while at number six is a ban on kite-flying on a Yorkshire beach.

Okay, health-and-safety fans, here’s your top five. At five, it’s a ban on carnivals that include a fancy-dress parade. Number four is a pensioner who paid the council to take away her old television. But the 85-year-old woman still had to drag her hefty gogglebox outside for the council staff in case they put their backs out lifting it.

Top three time. You’re excited, I can tell. At three, it’s the ban on royal wedding street parties – unless the organisers were prepared to shell out for insurance to the value of £5million, of course. At number two, it’s bosses at Butlin’s holiday camp preventing their unhappy campers from bumping each other… on the bumper cars.

And at number one, it is… game, set and match to the organisers of the Wimbledon tennis tournament for preventing crowds from watching Andy Murray’s match on a big screen on ‘Murray Mount’ (the geographical feature formerly known as ‘Henman Hill’) because the grass was wet and they might slip.

Is it ‘elf and safety gone mad? Not ‘arf!

The HSE makes something of a habit of running stories like this – for years it ran a ‘myth of the month’ feature on its website – because it claims to be unfairly blamed for such pointless bans. In June, the chair of the HSE wrote to Lord Young of Graffham, who has been conducting a review of health-and-safety law for the government, to bemoan the way ‘health and safety is being used by too many as a convenient excuse to hide behind’ when restricting or banning activities.

The organisation is right to point out that health-and-safety legislation ‘exists to protect people from real risks at, or connected with, work’. It’s absolutely right that employers meet certain standards so that workers can get on with their jobs without fear of suffering a serious injury.

But there is also plenty of truth in the notion that health-and-safety has ‘gone mad’. I remember working for a timber merchant in the early Nineties when an ‘operational auditor’ came to check our paperwork. However, the poor man suffered a workplace injury: he cut his finger on a staple. Despite the derision of everyone else in the office, he insisted on entering this incident in the depot’s accident book. I’m sure most people have a ‘health and safety gone mad’ story to tell, particularly anyone who has worked in the public sector where it seems that many people have nothing better to do than find another excuse for filling in a form or demanding a consultation.

Of course, people who have to deal with heavy objects regularly should be given some training on how to lift them. People who need to use ladders every day should be given the right equipment to secure them properly, and those who use machinery should be taught how to operate it safely. In that same timber merchant, the warehouse foreman had been sacked from a previous job (and prosecuted) for allowing an untrained young member of staff to use a forklift truck. The result was a fatal accident, something he bitterly regretted.

But it’s clear that things have gone too far in many instances. Ordinary activities, like moving a piece of furniture, now require a risk assessment and a public enquiry. There is no allowance for staff to accept very small risks in order to simply get on with their jobs, nor for children to be exposed to quite minor dangers in order to experience the pleasure of free play. Not only do we have ‘cotton-wool kids’, but we have ‘cotton-wool workers’, too.

And here’s where the HSE’s attempts to backheel the blame for all this make me choke on my cornflakes. (Why has no one banned those jagged-edged, breakfast-time throat-blockers?) It’s the HSE that has helped to institutionalise this risk-averse outlook, even if the bureaucratic, form-filling, petty jobsworthing goes way beyond its doors.

Health-and-safety has become an excuse for experts to come in and regulate the most trivial activities, assuming that we are simply too dim to keep ourselves safe. Such is its reach that many organisations and individuals regulate themselves pre-emptively, often far beyond the actual demands of law or insurance. It is this gap between actual law and our health-and-safety culture that the HSE can then exploit to claim ‘it ain’t us to blame, guv’.

The HSE does appear to have taken some steps to counter the wilder and more absurd examples of health-and-safety culture. But the HSE should end the pretence that it is somehow removed from the risk-averse outlook it has helped to foster.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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