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Safety and Health Practitioner (SHP) is first for independent health and safety news.
May 4, 2010

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Elf and safety’ police? Not if Gene’s in charge!

“Fire up the Quattro and take that bloody seatbelt off, you’re a police officer not a bloody vicar!” Do we need a Gene Genie to step in and clean up this health and safety ‘mess’?

No sooner had Labour’s spin-doctors stopped patting themselves on the back for their portrayal of David Cameron as the hard-drinking, politically-incorrect ‘Ashes to Ashes’ DCI in a campaign poster reading “Don’t let him take Britain back to the 1980s”, the Tories had hit back by unveiling their leader in replica guise, emphasising his ‘time for change’ message.

The maverick, no-nonsense TV copper Gene Hunt has become an emblem for the ‘good old days’ when people enjoyed life and took risks, and checks and controls were irrelevant as long as the results were right. But the symbolic presence of DCI Hunt in this election is a fascinating one for health and safety.

Firstly, there’s the obvious Police angle. Amid a number of stories suggesting that officers have been handicapped in fulfilling their duties to protect the public as a direct consequence of ‘conflicting’ health and safety legislation, the Conservatives have vowed, should they gain power, to amend the HSWA in respect of police officers.

According to shadow work and pensions secretary, Theresa May MP, the changes in the application of the Act to the Police would be designed to ensure that “the risk to the public is prioritised above the risk to individual officers”.

Secondly, there’s the issue of reducing what the party sees as an excessive burden of health and safety rules, so that organisations can get on with their business with fewer restrictions and less red tape. As a result of this concern, Cameron asked Lord David Young – a former Trade and Industry secretary under Mrs Thatcher – to review health and safety, with a view to stripping out any ‘unnecessary’ laws and reducing the regulatory burden.

Said Ms May: “It is essential that sensible regulation is in place to prevent employees from feeling pressurised to take on work that they have not been properly trained for, or where they lack the correct equipment. However, there are other areas where we must reduce the burden of regulation. Lord Young will be looking at how this can be done in regard to smaller, voluntary organisations, and where ‘Good Samaritans’ are acting in good faith.”

In the last 18 months, Cameron has made a connection a number of times between health and safety, an apparently overbearing state, and problems at the heart of society. In a speech last year, he described how an over-the-top health and safety culture is acting as a “straitjacket on personal initiative and responsibility”. This culture, he added, “treats adults like children, encouraging them to think that others have considered the risks for them, are taking responsibility for them, so they don’t have to think or take responsibility for themselves. What’s more, the fear of transgressing all these rules causes people to stand aside when others need help.”

Since targeting health and safety, Cameron, Lord Young and other Conservative MPs have been accused of misunderstanding the profession and failing to give it due credit for the steady decline in the number of deaths and serious injuries that have occurred in the workplace over the last 30 years.

But on the issue of individual responsibility and fear of non-compliance, many feel he has a point, and that the other political parties are singing from the same hymn book, albeit on different pages.

The suggestion that many organisations and individuals have become more risk-averse is difficult to argue against. Indeed, in response to Cameron’s speech last year, IOSH president John Holden admitted that society now subscribes to “two completely divergent views at the same time – ‘I want to take the risks I want to take but I don’t want to be exposed to any risks that are not of my making’ and ‘I want those who are involved in accidents to be held accountable, whatever the circumstances’”.

But if this is a societal problem, then is the perceived over-the-top health and safety culture – and subsequent industry that it has conceived – less of a cause and more a symptom of a wider problem? Is the real issue that symptom and cause have become blurred – feeding off each other, and creating a greater problem than first existed?

All the main parties state that more needs to be done to lighten the regulatory burden on businesses. But when SHP asked them what are the biggest challenges in health and safety as the UK emerges from recession, the various responses suggest where on the spectrum of symptom and cause the parties see the health and safety ‘industry’.

Ms May’s first statement was: “As we come out of recession, we must ensure that regulations placed on businesses – whether health and safety regulation, or any other – do not restrict economic competitiveness.”

Lib Dem health and safety spokesperson Paul Rowen MP’s opening line pointed to the “danger that cost-cutting lowers standards of health and safety”. Similarly, health and safety minister Lord McKenzie warned that preventing health and safety performance from slipping back required collaboration between employer, employee and regulator – “together promoting sensible and proportionate management of significant work-related health and safety risks”.

It is the benefits of collaboration that Lord McKenzie suggests have been eroded in the last 30 years, partly as a result of the way the world of work has changed – with more small businesses and fewer unionised companies that are “missing out on that knowledge and worker engagement, which has made a fundamental difference to many workplaces”.

Welcoming the efforts of the HSE, IOSH and others to establish an accreditation scheme for health and safety professionals, he also described the need to fight back against “those who recycle myths and seek to trivialise, misrepresent and undermine the cause of health and safety” as a “legal, business and moral imperative”.
The Lib Dems also stressed the importance of “empowering employers and employees to take responsibility” but indicated that they will take a hard line on enforcement and prosecution for serious wrongdoings.

Promising to protect the HSE from “across-the-board public-sector cuts”, Mr Rowen said the Lib Dems would concentrate resources “in high-risk areas like construction and the oil and gas industry”. At the same time, the party thinks many health and safety fines are too low and that, where major lapses exist, “more prosecutions with fines commensurate to the offence and costs of the breach” are desired.

The Tories believe that fewer regulations and improved health and safety performance are more than compatible, and if pursuit of the former achieves greater clarity and more confidence in the system then it could have a positive impact. However, the unions are not alone in seeing the party’s proposal to allow organisations, if deemed to be ‘low risk’, the right to audit themselves and ban HSE inspectors from accessing their sites, as having more than a whiff of a retrograde step about it.

One thing’s for sure, a certain belligerent detective wouldn’t take too kindly to being told he was barred from entry. “Ray-mondo, get me my search warrant!”

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