Health and Safety – Who Does It Protect?

Is the “Nanny State” as Protective as it Seems?

Some argue that health and safety rules are “over protective” and remove aspects of personal accountability. The reality is quite the opposite.

It’s health and safety gone mad. That’s the refrain you are likely to hear when workers are told that they need to undergo instructions on how to lift a box safely or climb up a ladder. People shake their heads in mock disbelief and hark back to days of yore when they could get on with their work as they saw fit, without having to put on extra layers of protective clothing and sit through hours of instruction.

Do they have a point? Certainly, Health and Safety is taken far more seriously than it was a generation ago. Everything from training processes to health and safety signs to PPE to inspection and audit has been stepped up and formalised.

Thirty years ago, you needed to attend a safety briefing before you could attend a hazardous environment such as a power station or an oil refinery. Now, you need to do so before entering even the most innocuous of industrial settings such as a storage warehouse. And all to warn you to watch out for getting run over by a fork lift truck? You can see why people sometimes get a little cynical on the subject.

Health and safety saves lives

The UK has a world-leading reputation in health and safety. In hazardous industries like construction, the rate of serious injuries and fatalities is significantly lower than in other western countries. For example, last year, the UK construction industry saw 30 fatalities in an industry that employs around three million people. In the US, there were 991 fatalities in an industry that employs ten million people.

“Fatal injury rate” gives the number of deaths per 100,000 people in a given environment. In the UK construction sector, it is 1.0. In the US construction sector, it is 10.1. And there are other sectors in the US that have even higher fatal injury rates – the most deadly is logging, where the number is a shocking 135 deaths per 100,000.

All this goes to prove that the UK is clearly doing something right, and it is unfair to take too cynical an approach to our Health and Safety culture, particularly in high-risk industries.

Health and safety protects businesses

So is this why all the legislation is in place? Is it why businesses invest thousands on training courses, signage and personal protective equipment? And then there’s the thousands more spent on getting the policies and procedures in place, and employing inspectors to make sure everyone’s following the rules.

In part, of course it is. Businesses have a moral and ethical obligation to look after their people. But suppose they did none of this stuff. Imagine, for a moment, an industrial operation where it’s left to the employees to carry boxes as they wish, bring their own PPE if they want to and so on. Two things would happen. The first would be accidents. And these would be followed by lawsuits against the employer.

And there’s the point – by investing all this money in training staff and empowering them to look after themselves at work, the employer is in no way “coddling” its workers. Quite the opposite – they’ve been told, they’ve been shown, they’ve signed the form. If they go out and hurt themselves now, they’ve nobody to blame but themselves.

Perhaps the question of whom the health and safety is really protecting is not quite so clear cut after all.

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