Health and safety saves lives. Why is the media so against it?
In the first of a two-part blog, Lauren Applebey examines the truth about red tape, regulation and the really important truth; people are dying at work, but the papers are still talking about conkers.
If you actually look at the statistics, we do not live in a claim culture. If you actually learn about how we are regulated, we are not tied up in red tape. However, if you look at the facts about lives lost, limbs cut off, people who go to work and leave in a vegetative state, this really happens. Every day, of every week of every year. That’s not an exaggeration; it’s not said to shock people. It is a fact. People die at work. In England and Wales, in India and China, on construction sites and farms, at big builds in the UK like Terminal Five, Crossrail and the M25 widening project and on small projects where an apprentice falls just a few feet, a farmer is overcome by slurry fumes or a worker is hit by a moving vehicle. I write about it every day. This is the truth and this is the side of health and safety that people should be taking about.
I have been working in health and safety for 8 years now. I write for health and safety magazines and websites and produce technical guidance, reports and write training scripts. Every day I write up court prosecutions. On a daily basis I have plenty of cases to choose from. Generally I go for a fatality (because that’s juicy, right?) or a company that my readers will have heard of. If no-one died then maybe I’ll pick a story about someone who has life-altering irreversible injuries such as paralysis (that’ll make a good read). And there’s the topic that always gets lots of hits – a story involving a child.
I have become totally numb to reading and writing this copy. Only recently I phoned the two companies involved in a case where a five-year-old girl was crushed to death by an electric gate. I just write. Facts, figures, dates, times and hopefully a moral to the story. A company who’s so sorry and a lesson learned.
And I do believe that lessons are learned and I do believe that less people are dying at work because of health and safety, legislation and guidance from the executive and policies, procedures and training.
The Health and Safety at Work Act has just celebrated its 40th birthday. In its first year there were 651 fatalities to employees covered by the legislation in place then, the latest annual fatality statistic stands at 148. But all of that is boring, right? People haven’t got time to risk assess and why should they? They’ve been doing this job for 20 years, why should they change now?
The simple fact is that every time I write about a death or serious injury, there was always something fairly straightforward that could have been done differently; and could have ultimately saved a life. The amount of times I describe an incident as ‘easily preventable’ or ‘avoidable’ just shows that simple measures can stop people leaving work in an ambulance, rather than at 5 o’clock in their car as they thought they would.
The sad thing is that as a nation we have become ashamed of our perceived over-zealous, jobsworth health and safety consultants and inspectors, who apparently are just party poopers here to spoil the fun. The media reports day-in and day-out about the office worker banned from putting up her Christmas decorations, the elderly ladies banned from putting up hanging baskets and, of course, those crazy goggle wearing five year olds bashing each other to death with conkers. In reality the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), never banned children from playing conkers nor did they concoct a law about wearing goggles. They never banned hanging baskets, or heating up baby food in restaurants or the throwing of mortar boards at graduation ceremonies.
Councils, schools and businesses have created many of their own rules and hidden behind those dreaded words – health and safety. It’s an easy excuse and people tend to go along with it. “We can’t do that because of health and safety” and “Oh we can’t do anything anymore. Everyone’s so scared of getting sued” are sentences we all hear all too often. Often it’s simply because they don’t want to do something or don’t want to spend the time and money doing something.
Health and safety should be proportionate and reasonable. A simple formula of the likelihood of a risk vs the severity if that risk was realised. Essentially what could happen and if it did, how bad would it be? Reasonable, suitable, sufficient controls should be put in place to bring that risk to a level that is acceptable.
That’s it. But that doesn’t make quite as good a headline.
In the second part of the blog Lauren looks at the recent reviews of the health and safety system in England and Wales, the compensation culture myths and the thousands of workers that may die building facilities for the 2022 world cup in Qatar. Lauren Applebey is a journalist and writer specialising in health, safety and the environment.