‘Elf ‘n’ safety. ‘Oo needs it?

In recent years, health and safety has taken its place alongside the European Union as an easy target for populist political baiting and slaying of myths. We’ve all heard of the EU’s straight bananas, although I’ve yet to see one. Now we have ‘elf ‘n’ safety threatening our way of life. Schools have banned children from playing conkers and toothpicks are too lethal for restaurants to provide at the end of a meal, etc, etc…

Within weeks of the general election, former Tory business secretary, Lord Young, was appointed to carry out an initial review of what he called, our “music hall joke” health and safety legislation. Subsequently, a more sober approach was taken by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt of King’s College, London, who was appointed in March 2011 to carry out an independent review of health and safety regulations and to “identify opportunities to simplify the rules”.

Lofstedt reported in November and all of his recommendations were accepted by employment minister, Chris Grayling. These included exempting some self-employed people from compliance with safety law, a review of core safety law to see if some common requirements can be consolidated and simplification of the Health and Safety Executive’s 53 approved codes of practice.

He has now been commissioned to produce a follow-up “mini report” assessing progress made on implementing his original recommendations and looking at specific issues such as the Work At Height regulations, and consolidating regulations limited to specific sectors, such as construction.

Yet, despite the fact that we have a university professor supported by Department for Work Pensions officials and an advisory panel including a Conservative MP, the Chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority and a representative of the British Chambers of Commerce, the Prime Minister still felt the need earlier this year to refer to the “health and safety monster” that is hampering business growth.

Last week I attended the annual Health and Safety Expo at the National Exhibition Centre. I didn’t see any signs of a monster. What I did see were hundreds of businesses and professionals who view health and safety policy as a means of improving business efficiency by reducing workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses. They included everyone from suppliers of gloves, hard hats, goggles and lighting, to safety harnesses, scaffolding and hydraulic lifts.

None of them is seeking to be a burden on business. Rather, they are providing equipment and services whose ultimate aim is to reduce the real burden on business, arising from workplace deaths and injuries. In the past two years, 323 people have died in the workplace and in 2010/11 there were 24,726 major injuries to employees – more than 40 percent caused by slipping or tripping. Workplace injury accounted for 4.4 million working days lost.

It’s not about more regulation or legislation. As one industry representative put it in a seminar at the Health and Safety Expo, “Communication and training are just as important as regulations”.

According to the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, by spending time and energy on getting health and safety management right, business could save nearly £8 billion annually, individuals more than £5 billion, and the economy as a whole £22 billion.

Health and safety; it’s a serious business, not a music hall joke.

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