Health And Safety Hearsay: Separating The Facts From The Fiction

Peninsula Team

November 05 2010

In the last issue of Bottom Line Express we considered the possible outcomes from Lord Young’s review of health and safety laws. In it we made reference to health and safety myths and half-truths which have become part of everyday folklore. In this article we use information gathered by the Health and Safety Executive, the Trades Union Congress and others to debunk and explain the real origin of some of the more common myths and half-truths.

Myth - There are more health and safety at work regulations than ever before.

Truth – Since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 the number of health and safety regulations has been reduced by half. The current laws and regulations are less complex and easier to understand.

Myth – Employers are over cautious and risk averse because they fear health and safety legislation.

Truth – There are, on average, 220 fatal accidents every year to workers and more than one million workplace injuries at work every year. In addition, around 25,000 people are forced to give up work because of an injury or illness caused by work. These statistics don’t demonstrate a risk adverse approach by employers; rather the opposite in fact. Most of these incidents could have been prevented had employers implemented simple and straightforward precautions and procedures.

Myth – Over-inspection and over-regulation of health and safety issues are a burden on small businesses.

Truth – The frequency of inspection authority visits to individual workplaces is proportionate to the health and safety risks within the business. High risk premises, particularly those in the chemical industry, will receive frequent visits. However, on average a small medium to low risk business is unlikely to receive a routine inspection visit more than once every 15 years.

Myth – School children are not allowed to use egg boxes in craft lessons because of health and safety risks.

Truth – Schools are free to use both cardboard egg boxes and toilet-roll tubes provided they are clean – which is common sense. The myth appears to have stemmed from biased reporting about a circular issued to schools Essex making it clear to teachers that they could be used because there was no risk to children from the use of clean egg boxes and toilet-roll tubes.

Myth - Risk assessment are always long and complex

Truth - On its own, paperwork never saved anyone- action is what protects people. Risk assessment is a means to an end, not an end in itself. So risk assessments should be fit for purpose and acted upon. Certainly, if you’re running a complex chemical process you will need a fair amount of paperwork; but for most people bullet points will be sufficient.

Myth – A local authority ordered the removal of St George’s flags from outside shops on safety grounds.

Truth – Liverpool City Council required one shop keeper to properly secure or take down flags after one had fallen from the building onto a car causing an accident. There was no blanket ban on the display of flags and no other shopkeeper was asked to remove them.

Myth – A church had to spend £1300 to change light bulbs because of health and safety regulations.

Truth – St Benet’s in Norfolk spent £1300 changing not just light bulbs but also the light fittings holding them. Due to the height and position of the lights the contractor had to use scaffolding. For him this was standard practice, it made the job easier and ensured that it could be done properly. It was nothing to do with the, at the time, recently introduced Work at Height regulations.

Half-truth – Local Councils have banned hanging baskets on health and safety grounds.

Truth – The Council in Bury St Edmonds did once remove hanging baskets on health and safety grounds because a routine inspection had found that some of the lampposts that they were hung on were unstable. Once the inspection was complete and the damaged lampposts replaced the hanging baskets were reinstated. There are still hanging baskets in Bury St Edmunds.

Half-truth – Conkers are not allowed in schools.

Truth – This bonkers conkers story is pure trivialisation of health and safety issues. Two schools are known to have asked children no to bring conkers to school on the advice of doctors because pupils had severe nut allergies. In another primary school the Head Teacher bought safety goggles for his pupils to use when playing conkers. He explained that he did this only because he wanted to make a point about the increased fear of litigation. This was completely overlooked in the media reports of the story.

There are many other myths and half truths in circulation. On close examination most have a simple, straightforward and reasonable explanation.

There are however some where the closer scrutiny reveals that employers and others have used health and safety as an excuse for not doing something that they didn’t want to do in the first place, or as an excuse for saving money. There are also cases where the standard requirements of an insurance policy are unsuitable for an event, but rather that liaise with the insurer or broker or because they have left it to the last minute the organisers have gone straight to the local press.

The truth is always that, whatever the situation, a sensible and informed assessment of hazard and risk, based on previous experience and the current situation will reveal the reasonably practicable and sensible control measures that are required.

If Health and Safety Red-Tape is a worry for your business do not hesitate to call our 24 Hour Advice Service on 0844 892 2772.

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