Just as cuckoos herald the coming of spring, so the ‘silly season’ marks that point in the year when tabloid editors reach for the stories and campaigns marked ‘not to be opened unless truly desperate’. How else to explain the Sun’s new (oxymoronic?) campaign to “Stop the nonsense!”. *
Claiming that public bodies have suffered a “collective loss of common sense”, the campaign was launched with a column by professional controversialist Rod Liddle which made a number of claims, not one of which was about workplace health and safety, and which included a number of stories that had already been thoroughly discredited.
These include a story that ‘health and safety’ meant that the police were stopped from rescuing a man in Gosport who subsequently drowned (The Daily Mail, who ran the story actually withdrew it shortly after), and that Wimbledon tennis club had stopped spectators using Murray Mound for safety reasons.
Now there is no doubt that some organisations do stupid things, and sometimes ‘health and safety’ is used as an excuse by organisations who either do not want to do something or are worried about insurance claims.
Perhaps these are sometimes fair game for the tabloids, given that they are really about entertainment rather than news, but is there really a problem out there? From the evidence it would seem not. Rather than public bodies and employers routinely trying to wrap us all up in cotton wool, most school trips, village fairs and street parties seem to manage to go ahead despite what the Prime Minister has called the health and safety culture that is “strangling” our economy.
But it is in the workplace that the effects are most felt. By focusing on a few harmless incidents (none of which are anything to do with the workplace) and ignoring the huge problem of people ignoring health and safety requirements the “brand” of health and safety gets diminished. People see “health and safety” as stupid rules and barriers, rather than as a framework for protecting those most vulnerable in society.
When employers do stick their head above the parapet and try to improve the safety position of their workers, as the European hairdressers did earlier this year, they face being criticised by politicians and the media. Employers get the message that health and safety is about doing the minimum required by the law, not about trying to follow good practice. The HSE has even set up a panel that anyone can complain to if they think someone is using health and safety has been used as an excuse. And they are guaranteed a reply in a few days. It would nice to get the same service when there are complaints that people’s safety is at risk.
Anyone who has had an injury or an occupational illness will know only too well that there is not an “overzealous” interpretation of health and safety in the workplace. Quite the opposite. Occupational Cancers still kill between 10 and 20,000 people every year and around 2 million people suffer from ill-health at work. All these are preventable. We need to ensure that health risks are identified and dealt with so that workers and the public are protected.
The Sun could really help us do that by exposing some of the examples that trade unions see every day. Cases of people crushed by reversing lorries because the employer did not bother to provide a Banksman. Hairdressers whose hands are covered in dermatitis because they have never been issued with gloves. Teachers and social workers forced out of the profession because the employer has no policy in place for preventing stress. That is what health and safety is really about. It would just be nice to read about some of that occasionally.
*(I reluctantly read this stuff so you don’t have to)