Managing health & safety with common-sense, not nonsense

Mark Owen – Health & Safety Expert

June 06 2016

Every business owner knows that it’s essential to get Health & Safety right, because otherwise, you can leave your organisation open to unnecessary risk. The problem is that while good H&S management is vital, sometimes, even with the best of intentions, rules can seem a little excessive or even downright silly – here are some great examples with some advice from our experts... Towards the middle of last month the papers and media reported as headline news that a university had banned students from throwing mortar-boards on graduation day. The grounds for the ban was said by some to be ‘for health and safety’, but was dismissed by others as ‘utter nonsense’. The publicity that surrounded the ‘silly’ ban brought a prompt response from the Health and Safety Executive. In a public statement they said: “You’d think universities would study history and do a bit of research before repeating tired health and safety myths like this one. The banning of mortar-board tossing on supposed ‘health and safety’ grounds is one of our most popular myths and actually appears in our Top 10 all-time worst health and safety excuses. As far back as 2008, HSE made clear the law does not stop graduates having fun and celebrating their success in the time-honoured fashion. The chance of being injured by a flying mortar-board is incredibly small and it’s over-the-top to impose an outright ban. We usually find the concern is actually about the hats being returned in good condition.” Reporting facts, not fiction... Of course the Health and Safety Executive view is good common sense, but much like the news itself, it was made without a true understanding of the university’s position and the detail behind it. The fact was that the university had not imposed any ban at all: what they had done was to ask their photographers not to encourage the practice during large group photographs – a request that was made because during celebrations in each of the last two years, students had suffered facial injuries during such photographs, with an incident in 2015 sufficiently serious as to require treatment in A&E. The University had said that “If individuals or small groups want to throw their mortar-boards they can, but we don’t think doing it in groups of around 250 students is sensible.” A case for common sense It’s evident that in this case the university was taking a sensible, risk-based approach. They recognised that in small groups, or individually, the risk was so low as not to require any comment all. They also recognised, based on actual injuries, that in very large groups the risk was significantly increased and that caution was appropriate. What was reported as nonsense was in fact a common sense and pragmatic approach - exactly what good health and safety management should be! In other news... Now let’s contrast the previous story with one of a local council that blocked access and locked a gate that provided a thoroughfare to a country coastal park. The council claimed that the road posed a risk to pedestrians and vehicles, and that they’d received reports of ‘near misses’. While there may have been some risk to people, the authoritarian action of closing the access was not justified on health and safety grounds. Following objections from members of the public, the issues were given a sensible consideration, and alternative arrangements have since been put in place to reduce the risks and the gates have been reopened. A final example Similarly, another local authority banned its refuse collection workers from wearing Christmas hats or anything Christmassy on the grounds of health and safety, stating that ‘drivers and other road users could be distracted’. There is, of course, no health and safety legislation to prevent refuse collectors wearing Santa hats or celebrating the time of year. When referred to the Health and Safety Executive’s Mythbuster Panel, their comment was that no health and safety reasons prevent workers entering the festive spirit or the use of modest decorations. They went on to say that “Excessive displays which might impede the driver's vision or cause a distraction are another matter, but that doesn't seem to be the case here. Being sensible about health and safety can still allow everyone to have some fun too!” As a client of Peninsula’s BusinessSafe services, whether you are speaking to one of our regional consultants or to our 24 Hour Advice Service (0844 892 2785) you will always receive considered, pragmatic advice on all Health & Safety matters – so you’ll be able to make sensible decisions instead of silly ones!

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