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H&S and the media: protecting child labourers and executing admirals

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Following on from part one and part two in his series on health, safety and the media; Adam Roscoe delves further into the role of the journalist in reporting health and safety related incidents.

Over the last few articles, I have been building an understanding of the media’s approach to incidents involving breaches of health and safety, including an idea to train the media in reporting on these incidents, covering incident causation, investigation, root causes and health and safety law.

In my final article, I ask: why should journalists be interested in the law around Health and Safety?

Journalists do learn key elements of the law and full-time court reporters covering criminal and civil courts are often as expert as lawyers on some topics. But the vast majority of journalists go through a ‘sheep dip’ of basic law instruction at the start of their career.

My edition of the designated text, ‘Essential Law for Journalists’ from the late ‘70s, seemed to focus on keeping the reporter on the safe side of the defamation and court and council reporting laws.  Practically, it covered how the new, young journalist can avoid being sued for libel or contempt, which can be both expensive for the newspaper and embarrassing and potentially career-limiting for the journalist.

A new syllabus from the journalists’ training body, the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ), announced this month, included proposals to spare some journalists the traditional torture of learning shorthand, as I did, but also toughens up on standards, propriety, privacy and the impact of journalism on individuals.

There are a number of ‘electives’, including sports and business journalism, and video journalism for online, but nothing on regulation affecting some of the most common issues and events they are likely to report on and be involved in reporting. These include: health and safety -related law, issues and inquiries, the role of the HSE, environmental protection law and procedures and so on.

But why does this matter?

The law, progressively pushing greater company compliance with regulations has been the foundation of the development of health and safety for nearly two centuries.  Journalists who studied for a degree in social and/or economic history or politics may well have come into contact with Factories Act of 1833 and subsequent safety legislation, but those who didn’t, probably won’t have a clue.

And even today’s most laissez faire, anti-EU media may be able to see the benefits of the enforcement focus, under the 1833 Act. The 33 Factories Inspectors, covering 3,000 mills were charged with preventing injury and overwork to child workers (never mind that children were working in the first place).

Back to the present day we’ve seen managers and directors jailed and fined for ignoring the advice of their health and safety advisors. The ‘catch all’ section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work Act punishes both ‘commission’ or ‘omission’ potentially leaves and no hiding place for recalcitrant bosses. This is neatly explained in a joint Institute of Directors and HSE guidance document: “Leading health and safety at work; Actions for directors, board members, business owners and organisations of all sizes”

“If a health and safety offence is committed with the consent or connivance of, or is attributable to any neglect on the part of, any director, manager, secretary or other similar officer of the organisation, then that person (as well as the organisation) can be prosecuted under section 37 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974.

Recent case law has confirmed that directors cannot avoid a charge of neglect under section 37 by arranging their organisation’s business so as to leave them ignorant of circumstances which would trigger their obligation to address health and safety breaches.”

There are rich pickings for a journalist in this section of a 42-year-old law, if they know about its existence.

It may seem odd at first sight for a gamekeeper to want to help a poacher – (i.e. for someone like me, interested in safety and incident prevention, to build capacity in the media, whose job it is to find culpability).  But it isn’t.

The obligation on a company to operate safely comes in the form of legal regulation, including health and safety law, augmented by the Corporate Manslaughter Act.  This legal framework is reinforced by increasing expectations from society, employees and investors, who expect that board members and senior managers WILL run companies with health and safety as a key element. The law forms one side of the equation.

And, like it or not, the other side of the equation is corporate governance and accountability, partially achieved by a strong media, holding government and companies to account on health and safety.

So the more members of the media who are more familiar with some principles of health and safety, incident causation,investigation and safety law will be more likely to do a better job in pushing bosses’ accountability.

As a slight digression, but bear with it.  In the 18th century, the British Navy took a very brutal approach to consequence management for their senior managers, when they executed Admiral Byng, effectively for failing to do enough to win a battle against the French.

The event was described later by French author Voltaire: “Dans ce pays-ci, il est bon de tuer de temps en temps un amiral pour encourager les autres” translated as:“In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

Today’s ‘admirals’ of industry – directors and managers won’t get executed, but neither do they want their personal and professional reputations hit by negative media coverage of their involvement in serious safety breaches.

For some of the worst bosses, this may be the most important driver in keeping them on the safety case.  But more broadly, a knowledgeable media will be ‘a rising tide that will lift all boats’ in that it pushes for better focus and governance on health and safety by those directors and managers with the ultimate responsibility to run a safe business or enterprise.

I’d be interested to hear of any other proposals for topics that readers think it would be useful for journalists to know more about.

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Adam Roscoe
Adam Roscoe

Adam Roscoe is a consultant specialising in organisational resilience, sustainability, governance and communications. He spent 14 years at a Fortune 500 engineering company based in Zurich.  For eight years to 2015 he headed the company’s sustainability function, including strategy, policy and programs covering health, safety, environment; security, crisis management; human rights; sensitive countries / projects across 100 countries. He is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and of the Institute of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability.

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Showing 2 comments
  • Kevin S
    Reply

    Is it the case that journalists are more concerned with sensationalizing a story for increased copy or ego? The current case of tube strikes is reported to be about safety of passengers, has anyone asked for risk assessments, legal requirements, or factual evidence to support the claims of unions which may or may not have foundation. It is so easy to cite health and safety and not substantiate the claims leading to lazy journalism, surely if the situation is unsafe why not investigate the reasons to expose those that are non compliant.No safety professional should ever take things on face value but a journalist can! Yes all media should be trained to view the evidence put before them and report only fact not opinion.

    • Peter
      Reply

      My gosh Kevin, you can’t expect journalists to go against 40 years of reporting. Next you’ll be expecting integrity and fact checking when reprinting stories trawled from the web. Even the Lofstedt report identified media coverage as a significant factor in propagating the ‘elfansafety/compensation culture” myths, although it is unsurprising (given who commissioned the report in the first place) that this was coached in terms making it easy to overlook the issue.