Following the Health and Safety Executive’s publication of their “top ten bizarre applications of health and safety law”, there has been a bit of a media buzz.
So is the HSE right? Or are the “elf ‘n’ safety” detractors, who believe that everything has just gone TOO far, correct?
We were asked about the issue – and here’s what we had to say.
Do you agree or disagree with the claim that some organisations are “hiding” behind health and safety laws to ban or limit certain risk-free activities?
It does seem that there are occasions when health and safety law is used as an excuse to ban or limit activities, when in fact risks are really quite trivial or when a simple risk assessment would ensure that reasonably practicable measures could have been taken to keep the public safe.
Over zealousness about trivial risks gives health and safety a bad name but there are actually many more cases where people are under-hitting.
If organisations are misinterpreting the regulations, does it indicate they are too complex and need simplifying?
In one or two cases, it may be that regulations are too complex, but in the main organisations are simply required to undertake a “suitable and sufficient” risk assessment to work out what reasonably practicable safety measures they need to take.
Unless the activity in question is particularly specialist, this can be done by those people who are directly involved and who know the hazards and dangers and what would be a proportionate approach to safety.
Should people have to conduct risk assessments for events such as royal wedding street parties, or should they just use their common sense?
Conducting simple risk assessments is probably what most people would class as “using their common sense” – it is a common misconception that they need to be long, complicated documents. In most cases, they can be carried out quickly, for example as part of forward planning.
“Risk assessment” just means spotting any real dangers and working out if precautions taken are about right.
Ministers seem to believe there are too many trivial health and safety regulations and the focus should be on preventing serious risk in the workplace from machinery, materials and the working environment. Would you agree with that?
We would agree that the focus should be on preventing serious injuries connected with work activities – and indeed, the focus is on those things! The Health and Safety at Work Act is a broad piece of legislation that requires organisations to adopt a balanced and proportionate response to controlling risks. The detailed health and safety regulations which support it are not trivial but they are not what people actually read. In practice people need to use guidance to help them work out what they need to do in their particular circumstances.
There is plenty of information out there to help people do this. Some things like working at unfenced machinery or being exposed to powerful carcinogens without suitable protection obviously need to be prohibited but in the vast majority of cases there is no need to ban everyday activities on the grounds of “health and safety”.
Good health and safety is all about exercising judgement. People in authority such as councillors and managers need to be much more “risk literate” or “risk intelligent”. And third partiers such as clients, funders or insurers need to avoid requiring people to do things in the name of “elf ‘n’ safety” which are not actually required by the law.
Roger Bibbings, RoSPA’s occupational safety adviser