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What has Health and Safety ever done for us?

August 8, 2014 at 2:57 PM

How often have you been told that 'health and safety' is the reason a common sense request can't be completed?

Cartoon of trapeze artist with a hardhat

Over the last few years it feels like the H&S excuse has been increasingly trotted out to explain why almost any frustrating procedure is in place and why it cannot be changed.

Much of this stems from the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which is the primary piece of legislation covering occupational (workplace) safety in the UK. But with all the inconvenience it causes, why on earth did we bring this legislation on ourselves, and was it really worth it?

Health and Safety Myths

When it comes to decisions that are attributed to health and safety, there is no shortage of baffling myths around.

In the workplace we have heard of office workers prohibited from hanging Christmas decorations, flip flops outlawed, engineers banned from climbing stepladders, and even trapeze artists made to wear hard hats - all in the name of health and safety.

Cartoon of children getting candyfloss with no sticks

Such myths continue in our public areas, with other reported cases of supermarket staff 'not allowed' to water dying plants, candy floss on sticks declared 'banned', and a pub that allegedly didn't provide a mirror in its disabled toilet 'for health and safety reasons'.

But what we must be aware of is that none of these has any grounds in the law.

In fact the urban legends have now gotten so great that the Health and Safety Executive has even set up its own Myth Busters Challenge Panel to tackle these reports and put right the outlandish stories so often distorted in the media.

With so much bad (and erroneous) reporting, it's no wonder we think of health and safety as the business of miserable killjoys who would prefer no one to have any fun.

Reducing Workplace Injuries

Looking past such stories, the reality is that the Health and Safety at Work Act, forty years old this year, has radically enhanced safety in workplaces across the UK, and you now are less likely to die or be seriously injured in the workplace than ever before.

The Act led to the formation of both the Health and Safety Commission and the Health and Safety Executive, and it is these bodies which regulate the law, help reduce risk and bring irresponsible employers to justice in the courts.

For example, below are just a few of the key statistics on workplace safety in the UK:

• In 1974 annual deaths at work were at 650, yet today in 2014 they are at a record low of 133 - a fall of 85%.

• Injuries sustained at work have dropped by more than three quarters (77%) in the same period, from 336,701 to just 78,222.

• The UK's rate of fatal injuries at work, at 0.71 per 100,000 employees, is significantly below most other EU member states, including big economies like Germany and France.

I find it worthwhile to remember some of these figures whenever somebody quotes health and safety as an obstacle or complains about 'risk assessments', as well as upon hearing the current trend of politicians declaring a need to 'cut red tape' from the system.

Put simply, this 'red tape' has a proven track record of saving lives, or as The Telegraph's Philip Johnston explains it:

"[the health & safety at work act] has arguably saved more lives than any other piece of legislation, including the ban on drink driving or the compulsory wearing of seat belts in cars. It may well have reduced deaths by 5,000 or more."


So what are the benefits of the Health and Safety at Work Act?

Apart from creating a world-class regulatory system, vastly reducing the chance of an injury at work, ensuring employers have to take our safety seriously, and creating laws which ensure those who create risk are responsible for proportionately managing it ..... yes apart from all that, what has the Health and Safety at Work Act ever done for us?! 

What health and safety myths have you come across? Do you think the balance between employer responsibilities and worker safety is at the right level?

Let me know in the comments.


About the author

Martyn Gilbert photoMartyn Gilbert is the Chief Information Officer at Spencers Solicitors and has worked in the legal industry for over 17 years, developing systems and processes to assist lawyers in helping injured people.

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