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April 20, 2009

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BBC joins the debate on ‘bonkers’ health and safety

It seems the media has not yet tired of taking pot-shots at health and

safety, with another half-hour of prime-time television devoted to

emphasising the absurdity of the sector with only scant mention of its


The BBC’s Panorama programme ‘May contain nuts’, presented by

parliamentary sketch-writer and Mail on Sunday columnist Quentin Letts,

kicked off with the question: “It’s easy to make fun of health and

safety, but does that make it wrong?” With liberal use of words and

phrases like “laughing stock”, “obsessive”, and “zealots” the casual

viewer was left in no doubt that some areas of health and safety

deserve all they get.

Much was made of a local council’s decision to ‘topple-test’

gravestones and then shore up those deemed unstable with wooden shafts,

thus creating even more hazards, as Letts gleefully pointed out. While

some mention was made of the fact that deaths and injuries from

unstable gravestones have happened in the past, the costs incurred in

carrying out these tests and installing interim safety measures, and

the upset caused to the relatives of those interred in the cemetery,

were emphasised much more strongly.

The programme did attempt to explain why health and safety is not

always the enemy — discussing, for example, the provenance of the

Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 35 years ago, and pointing out that

much of today’s problems stem from the rise in insurance premiums and

the plethora of ambulance-chasing lawyers creating a compensation

culture — but this felt like a distraction to the main aim: taking the

mick out of health and safety.

Following a moving segment with the parents of 17-year-old Stephen Burke, who died in a fall from height five years ago,

the programme moved on to Letts’ attendance on a course to “learn how

to use a step-ladder”. Although he acknowledged that 12 people were

killed in ladder incidents last year, the gravity of this fact was lost

in his jocular chat with Belgian construction workers who poured scorn

on the UK’s adhesion to rules and procedures, and his sarcastic receipt

of his certificate for having passed the course.

The Ladder Association took a dim view of the programme (the course

featured was not one of theirs). Chairman Don Aers commented: “We all

think we can use one, but it is surprising the number of people who

have been using ladders, including the hardened 20-year user, who come

away from a Ladder Association training course having learned something

new. Knowledge or information that may prevent injury or worse in the

future. The message from the Association remains clear: if it’s right

to use a ladder, use the right ladder, and get trained to use it


On the positive side, the programme did highlight some of the concerns

that practitioners and other stakeholders in the health and safety

sector have held for some time — namely, the lack of resources for the

HSE, ‘gold-plating’ of EU directives, and the growing reluctance of

individuals to take responsibility for their own health and safety.

General secretary of the UCATT union Alan Ritchie told Letts that

although construction is the UK’s most dangerous industry, it also has

the lowest number of safety committees and safety reps. Ritchie also

bemoaned the lack of HSE inspectors, to which the Executive’s chair,

Judith Hackitt, replied that “numbers are now up to where we want them

to be”. She avoided agreeing to Letts’ suggestion that enforcement

should be the HSE’s main weapon, insisting that it was one of many

tools at its disposal. Letts made the observation that many in the

sector have felt for some time that all this fretting about the lower

end of risk — the gravestones, the ladders, etc. — may mean that those

at the higher end go unnoticed.

IOSH agreed with Letts’ call for an end to risk-averse meddling where

it’s not needed and for us all to accept greater responsibility for our

own safety. However, it was also concerned that by highlighting

examples of over-zealous interpretation of health and safety

guidelines, the programme itself was guilty of being over-zealous.

Said president-elect, John Holden: “True, there have been examples of

local authorities diving in with both feet, using stakes and ropes and

daubing gravestones with bright paint, with little feeling for people’s

sensitivities. In my experience of working on this type of risk,

however, there’s generally a much more planned approach, taking time to

consult with relatives, communicate with councillors, talk to people

visiting graveyards and taking care in selecting which graves,

depending on their size, age and position, need to be highlighted with

discreet notices before being repaired, if they are unsafe.”

John concluded: “If the lasting effect of Panorama’s focus on health

and safety is to make a memorable contribution to introducing a more

common-sense approach to risk management, based on protecting against

real danger rather than wrapping people in cotton wool, then this has

to be a good thing.”

The Prospect union took a similar view, with HSE branch chair Neil

Hope-Collins congratulating the BBC for “highlighting the importance of

occupational health and safety regulation” but also expressing concern

that this message was undermined by “exaggeration and misinterpretation

of selected policies”, mirroring the very approach the programme

aspired to tackle. He added: “This masked the bigger picture: many

employees continue to be exposed to excessive risk at work.”

The union issued an invitation to Quentin Letts to meet its members in

the HSE “to discuss the valuable work they do and how they go about it”.

The programme concluded that while safety at work has a legitimate

role, there is a great deal more to be done. Taking the heat off the

health and safety professional (variously described in the programme as

“making money for nothing” and “bureaucrats”) the point was emphasised

that unless we all take responsibility for our own safety and start

using some common sense, “safety will continue to be a joke — a

dangerous joke”.

What did you think of the programme —

another nail in the coffin or a balanced and beneficial broadcast? Let

us know via our comment function below.

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