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Wednesday, 16 April 2014

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After man banned from starting race with starting pistol, have health and safety rules gone too far?

The woman who set her hand on fire in a classroom is not a mad scientist, a political activist or a pyromaniac but the chairwoman of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the national independent watchdog for work safety.

Alan Bell photo
Alan Bell

Related: School sports day ban for Carlisle's Olympic Games starter

She did it to make a point that people – even children – should still be allowed to take risks.

Judith Hackitt CBE says: “I feel very strongly about the need for kids to experience risk in their school lives because that’s what they need to learn about: you can’t avoid it.

“I’m a strong believer that science is a practical subject and if you show how exciting it is you can inspire kids.”

Judith, it turns out, is just as angry about all the health and safety “nonsense” as the rest of us.

She has no problem with children playing conkers (with or without protective goggles) and has branded the Alan Bell decision “ridiculous”.

“I think in this particular case it seemed to me to be quite ridiculous that they were prepared to play the sound of the starters gun from an iPod but not the gun itself.

“The first and most important thing is to remind people what we are really here for: our job is to prevent death and injury happening to people in the workplace.

“That’s what real health and safety is about. All this nonsense done in the name of health and safety takes people away from things that really matter and gives us a bad name.”

The HSE has become a punchbag for the right wing press.

Judith insists that many of the ludicrous examples of health and safety gone mad given by the likes of columnists Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson have very little to do with the laws to protect people at work.

Instead, they are the result of a confusion between workplace legislation and civil litigation which have become entangled in the popular imagination, thanks partly to the media.

“I have every sympathy with Littlejohn and Clarkson in the way they rail against the health and safety culture and they are absolutely right to do so.

“My concern is that they don’t understand the distinction between what we do and the real cause of all the nonsense.

“I get angry when they blame the health and safety executive for causing it when that is absolutely not the case.”

She is keen to emphasise the distinction between the HSE – which aims to prevent people from being injured or killed at work – and those who make up the rules “as a convenient excuse to hide behind”.

A recent example involves caravaners not being allowed to iron their clothes on camping trips.

She says: “The reason they were removing the irons was because nobody was using them and it was not worthwhile to keep them.

“But it was easier for them to explain their decision on health and safety grounds.”

The problem is so great that HSE Ministers set up a myth-busting panel in April to help the public fight council health and safety “jobsworths” who misinterpret or invent legislation to suit themselves.

Their findings are set out at http://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/myth-busting/index.htm.

Spurious health and safety rulings are not merely invoked to mask unpopular decisions or by clipboard carrying killjoys.

Many people are quite simply terrified of being sued. We are living in a risk averse culture: Where there’s blame, we are told, there is also a claim.

People are worried that if something happens on their watch they will be held responsible and pecuniary action taken against them or the organisation they represent.

Rather than encouraging common sense, fears like this can actually paralyse it.

Denise Grey, 65, of Workington, previously worked as a health and safety administrator in Gartree prison, in Leicestershire, when it was then a category A facility housing murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

She now has a less hazardous job as the financial director of a Workington-based vintage bus company where the main health and safety issues are oil spillage and ensuring disabled passengers get on off without mishap.

In Gartree inmates would throw batteries (and worse) from the higher levels, risking injury or even death walking below.

Despite her harrowing experiences, Denise insists that commonsense rather than legislation is always the best protection against injury.

“The health and safety executive people think we don’t have any commonsense and have to be told what to do and what not to do,” she says. “They don’t give us any credit.

“It doesn’t matter how much health and safety you have, it is not going to stop accidents. Commonsense is what stops accidents. People are still going to get hurt.”

Denise first noticed a tightening of the rules in the late 1990s.

She says: “That was when they jumped on health and safety. That’s when it first came in sillily.

“I had to phone the laboratory to find out what was in things, including ordinary household goods, things used in offices... any liquid.

“Everything had to be documented” she recalls.

Judith says that generally there is now a lot less regulation than there used to be and it has been simplified.

Shaun Halfpenny, the retired former head of Cummersdale school in Carlisle, hit national headlines when he insisted pupils playing conkers should wear goggles.

The story became so well-known that it featured on Mastermind, QI and University Challenge.

Shaun insists that his original risk assessment was at least partly “tongue in cheek” but he adds: “There was a slight risk that someone’s eye might be damaged by a shard or a conker coming off the string.”

After the story went national, he received letters from people who had lost an eye or part of their sight after playing conkers.

Many of them thanked him for bringing the issue to the attention of the general public.

Even Shaun thinks the decision to ban Mr Bell from firing his starting pistol was a step to far and not at all comparable to his perfectly legitimate conker concerns.

“I think it’s silly. Unless you are going to fire a gun next to a child’s ear there is no danger to health and no risk of the gun exploding.”

THE HSI has released a top 10 list of the daftest decisions to mark the launch of the Myth Busters Challenge Panel. They are:

Children being banned from playing conkers unless they are wearing goggles

Office workers being banned from putting up Christmas decorations

Trapeze artists being ordered to wear hard hats.

Pin the tail on the donkey games being deemed a health and safety risk

Candy floss on a stick being banned in case people trip and impale themselves

Hanging baskets being banned in case people bump their heads on them

Schoolchildren being ordered to wear clip on ties in case they are choked by traditional neckwear

Park benches must be replaced because they are three inches too low.

Flip flops being banned from the workplace

Graduates ordered not to throw their mortar boards in the air

You can contact the panel if they feel they have been stopped from doing something on spurious ‘health and safety’ grounds.

The Myth Busters Challenge Panel provides advice on whether regulations have been misused – allowing people to challenge their council over some of the more ‘daft’ decisions.

Have your say

The fear of litigation is for many people very real - the costs of defending an action (which they won't get back) could well bankrupt an individual or small organisation.
The lack of proper regualtion of 'No Win-No fee' claims of ALL types along with the ridiculous costs of litigation in the UK makes 'justice' only for the claimant and the rich.
This is not new - large companies have been using this to bully small companies and individuals for decades even when they have no real chance of a judgement in their favour.
Now that this 'culture' had hit a wider range of victims regulation is clearly overdue. The 'insured' are victims but for the insurers (how ever much they bleat) it's just another excuse to rake up the premiums in a far from truly competetive marketplace - just look at their profits.
There is one way to keep the costs of insurance for events and clubs down - be professional: define what the insurer is covering. People complain it's hugely expensive to insure 'a fete' but if you're insuring a fete of 20-25 stalls, St John covering the First Aid and the local fire service with a demonstration and expected visitors of 2000 based on previous years - that's MUCH cheaper.

Posted by Robert Mallett BSc. on 2 July 2012 at 13:57

I agree it is fear of litigation rather than sensible application of the legislation. However, until the Judges deciding such cases get real, people are right to be concerned about "pecuniary measures being taken against them or the organisation they represent".

I speak first hand where a common sense approach was taken only to see a Judge decide against.

Posted by Kevin on 2 July 2012 at 12:56

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