The influence of ignorance on government policy
In the second part of Lauren’s blog she looks at what has been happening in health and safety over the last few years and what that means for the industry and the wider world.
In the first part of this blog I spoke about some of the perceptions around ‘elf and safety and the way that the media portrays the “jobsworth consultants” who spend their time telling office workers to get down off step ladders while putting up their Christmas decorations. Anyone within the industry knows that health and safety is far from this.
It is about workers who spent years handling asbestos who now have cancer. It is about migrant workers with limited English who don’t understand the risks they are exposed to. It is about protecting our vulnerable workers: older people, younger people, pregnant people, people suffering mental and physical illness in the workplace and so many more. It is about you and me and everyone around us at work and our responsibility to make sensible, informed and proportionate decisions about every aspect of our job, without it becoming a ridiculous paperwork trail that becomes an obstacle of the task itself.
The stories that have hit the headlines over the last few years about banned donkey rides, killer confetti, frisbees removed from dog shows, and of course those conkers undermine every bit of serious work consultants, directors and workers undertake to make their workplaces safe.
Over the last few years the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been operating its own myth busters challenge panel, which highlights businesses and organisations that hide behind health and safety and make disproportionate or inaccurate claims about what can and can’t be done – due to it being deemed unsafe. These include the banning of traditional school ties, pinning tails on donkeys and candy floss on sticks. Over 300 cases later and it is very apparent that it is becoming a very easy excuse to simply say “it’s because of health and safety”.
This is also reflected in the apparent “compensation culture” in which we live. If we actually lived as the press often portrays we do then the following would be a typical occurrence. A person clears the pavement of snow outside their house. A member of the public then slips on this area and sues the person who originally cleared it. The ‘offender’ pays out huge sums of money to the person who fell, who is suffering a bit of whiplash and the injured party rubs their hands together with the money burning a hole in their back pocket as they skip off to the bank. This really doesn’t happen.
Government figures show that there has been a fall from 183,342 claims in 2002/03 to 91,115 in 2012/13 and six out of every seven workers who are injured or made ill through work get no compensation at all.
According to recent statistics for those who do successfully claim; the majority of workplace damages paid to injured workers are for less than £5,000 and around 75 per cent of cases are for damages of less than £10,000. Very occasionally there are settlements of over £250,000. These are, however, the minority of cases and relate to people who have been very badly injured, people who may require permanent around-the-clock care for many years and will probably never work again. Often they will have lost the use of their limbs and/or be significantly brain-damaged.
The TUC published an article about the myths surrounding our compensation culture, which raises some key points. Not only are the number of cases falling, but the process of claiming has become harder with laws requiring claimants to prove negligence on the part of the employer – which can be tricky to do.
In recent years there have been two reviews of the health and safety system in the England and Wales. Lord Young and Professor Lofstedt’s reviews concluded that health and safety has become burdensome, tied up in red tape and overly complex. Businesses fear getting sued because of a compensation culture and organisations are getting bad advice from underqualified and overly authoritarian safety consultants.
In response to the reviews the government and HSE has removed some legislation and combined simplified and clarified some guidance. There are changes which see some self-employed people becoming exempt from health and safety legislation, and further simplification and consolidation of health and safety legislation and guidance.
From the outside this seems to all make sense and a simpler system is not necessarily a bad thing – but what we are ignoring is the heart of the problem. The general understanding of health and safety by the average worker, the average company director and the average member of the public. While people think that health and safety is about banning the WI from baking cakes and not letting people eat their steaks nice and rare – it is actually about controlling risk to lower the number of dead and injured workers. It is about changing the attitudes of everyone in the workplace from the interns upwards and the boardroom downwards.
It’s about standing up for the hundreds of people affected by the deaths of over 1000 people at the Rana Plaza complex in Bangladesh, which collapsed in 2013. Primark, Asda, Debenhams and Matalan had garments produced in the factory there which brings it a little closer to home.
It is about standing up for the thousands of workers reported to have died during building works for the Qatar World Cup. Deaths are predicted to hit 4000 by the time the event starts, in what some have called ‘slave labour’, as workers struggle with poor working conditions and extreme heat.
And it’s about standing up for you and me, our husbands and wives when they go to work in the morning, our children at nursery and school, our construction workers, security guards, doctors and nurses who are exposed to risk at work. It’s about accepting that risk is inevitable but learning how to manage, reduce and even eliminate it.
It’s about working in the knowledge that we are protected, valued and most of all – safe.
Lauren Applebey is a journalist and writer specialising in health, safety and the environment.
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