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Tue 17th May 2011

Health and safety regulation: ‘gone mad’ or saving lives?



In the twenty-first century we have witnessed remarkable advances in science and technology, progressive new laws that have sought to minimise social inequality, and mind-blowing expressions of artistic creativity. Some, however, believe that the pursuit of progress has led us to go too far; in seeking to eliminate risk and moral misbehaviour, we have replaced common sense with rules and regulations which simply arent necessary. For these critics, political correctness and health and safety have gone mad. In his Panorama investigation into Britains health and safety regulations in April last year, Quentin Letts used a particularly insensitive example of health and safety officers overstepping the mark. While visiting her husbands grave, a widow from Nottinghamshire found that the headstone had been adorned with an oversized yellow sticker reading WARNING! This Memorial is Unsafe. Should not be tampered with. Essential maintenance required.

Examples like this one, in which risk is over-assessed, give the impression of a society in which humanity is compromised in the name of health and safety. But the reality is quite different. The UKs Heath and Safety Executive (HSE) is the national independent watchdog for work-related health, safety and illness, and works in the public interest to reduce work-related death and serious injury. Their statistics show that every year over a million people are made ill or injured at work. In 2008/9 180 people died from work-related causes. These figures make it clear that health and safety concerns, particularly in the workplace, cannot and should not - be ignored. In order to reduce these numbers, the HSE works with employees, business leaders, workers and workers representatives to foster a sensible approach to health and safety in the UK.

Working to improve workplace safety is a range of organisations that pursue similar goals to the HSE. The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), for example, is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. They say on their website that when it comes to health and safety, only advice from qualified, experienced and skilled professionals will do. Thats why one of our main roles is to maintain high standards. The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) is a registered charity and the professional voice for environmental health, providing information, evidence and policy advice to local and national government and environmental and public health practitioners in the public and private sectors. The CIEH argues not for more regulation, but instead for better regulation: there is a need for closer co-ordination between national and local regulators to improve efficiency, and greater emphasis on achieving compliance through education and advice, rather than enforcement.

Also supporting the principles of the HSE are smaller organisations that provide health and safety training, consultancy and advice adapted to the needs of different customers. Examples include courses on first aid and defibrillation, fire safety, food safety and manual handling. These services not only reduce the likelihood of injury in the workplace, but also protect organisations who may not fully understand their legal duties as employers. For new businesses, the prospect of formulating health and safety policy and undertaking risk assessments can be especially daunting. Top providers of health and safety training and consultancy offer guidance and ensure that the business in question fully understands its legal responsibilities. Some go even further, composing health and safety policies and developing systems for reporting accidents. Investing in such services means that businesses and other organisations can ensure the safety not only of their employees and the general public, but also of themselves.

The most established providers of health and safety advice and training are also able to adapt their services to changing requirements. Childcare centres have increased in popularity as more and more mothers choose to return to work, and so health and safety specialists have tailored their courses to develop basic first aid skills relevant to infants and children. One example is the Paediatric First Aid course which equips participants with a comprehensive range of skills to enable them to respond professionally in the event of a child becoming unwell or injured. The 12-hour course is aimed at staff working with children who need to be qualified and meet the requirements of the OFSTED/Early Years Foundation Stage. Another example is the First Aid for Infants and Children certificate, which is valid for three years and is aimed at teachers, teaching assistants, school meal supervisors, learning support workers and nursery staff. By offering these bespoke services, health and safety specialists make adhering to health and safety guidelines an easy and integrated part of service delivery.

Health and safety regulation, while occasionally misplaced, is a vital component of our workplace laws. While far-fetched stories about health and safety regulation the banning of ice cream nut toppings which might cause customers to slip, or floral hanging baskets which might topple onto unsuspecting pedestrians, for example may provide a little light relief, they are rarely rooted in truth. The HSEs long-time commitment to the concept of reasonably practicable safety measures is a fitting representation of the majority of health and safety regulation, in which the primary aim is not to take the fun out of everyday life, but to make peoples lives safer.