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November 3, 2005

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Political profile-raising

IOSH director of communications Ruth Doyle was at the Liberal Democrat Party conference, representing members’ views on the political stage and promoting the value of the profession. But was it all just hot air or was there some real substance in the discussions that took place?

Developing relations in government and parliament is key for IOSH if the Institution’s future communications strategy is to be successful. Gaining the ear of these people in these circles is essential for the Institution, and all of its members, to gain the profile they deserve.

With the recent launch of the ‘risk debate’ by the HSE, it was no surprise that this formed the basis of the HSC fringe meeting, entitled ‘Thrill or spill?’ at the conference.

Chair of the HSC, Bill Callaghan, pointed out that some of the ‘elf and safety gone mad’ stories had no truth in them, but that other times, those involved in health and safety are the architects of their own downfall. Illustrating this point, Bill said: “We recently gave some advice for local councils in relation to old gravestones — but this has been interpreted as a reason to knock them down.”

Examples like this show how well-intentioned advice can easily be mis-understood or mis-applied in practice, and Bill questioned: “How do we encourage a sense of proportion in the management of risk?”

Lib Dem shadow spokesman for work and pensions, which includes health and safety, Danny Alexander, said he welcomes a more open debate on risk. Referring to a recent survey by the HSE, he said most businesses regard health and safety as a benefit. However, the wider issue for Danny is how society perceives risk: “The Disability Rights Commission has found that health and safety is being used as a form of discrimination — risk management must open opportunities for disabled and non-disabled alike. Disabled people have the same rights as anyone else to expose themselves to and manage risk.”

HSC commissioner, Judith Donovan, feels that the health and safety brand is being ‘bastardised’: “The UK operates on a system of guidelines, not a Napoleonic Code. But for as long as we’re distracted by childish nonsense, we’re doing a disservice to those who have lost their lives at work.

“We can manage risks effectively — and it doesn’t have to rely on someone’s hunch or opinion — risk assessment is a science, not an art.”

So, if risk assessment is a science, then shouldn’t employers be made more aware of the value that health and safety practitioners bring to decision-making? And shouldn’t the HSC give clearer guidance on the kind of competent advice employers need in discharging health and safety duties?

In IOSH’s view, the answer to both questions is “yes”.

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