The 40yr old Act’s rules are founded on common sense, but they’ve been hijacked by jobsworth!
Summer is well under way, so we can expect the usual litany of patronising health and safety announcements on public transport and elsewhere. Among the blindingly obvious bits of advice that have apparently passed mankind by in the millennia since we started to walk upright are the following: we should wear loose-fitting clothes in the heat, make sure we drink plenty of water and sit down if we feel faint.
At Lord’s of all places, the players during the England v Sri Lanka Test stopped not for drinks, which have sustained cricketers since the first ball was bowled at the ground 200 years ago, but for a sponsored “hydration break”; and the crowds baking in the June sun were encouraged to take in plenty of liquid. They certainly did that, though not much of it was water.
The World Cup has brought a crop of health and safety stories, usually centred on whether or not the Cross of St George can be flown and in what circumstances. Gordon McGiffen, a south London bricklayer who displayed England flags on a brand new block of flats which is covered in scaffolding, was told to take them down because they posed a health and safety risk. “All I am trying to do is support England and I have been told I am not allowed to,” Mr McGiffen said.
His is a familiar lament. Health and safety has become synonymous with nanny statism, interfering jobsworths, ludicrous litigation and risk aversion. And yet the Health and Safety at Work Act, which is 40 years old this summer, has arguably saved more lives than any other piece of legislation, including the ban on drink driving or the compulsory wearing of seat belts in cars. It may well have reduced deaths by 5,000 or more.
So how did an Act that was by any measure a milestone in social reform turn into one of the most disparaged statutes of recent times? Partly it has to do with the way the law is interpreted – and often wrongly blamed for absurd restrictions imposed on perfectly innocuous practices. But it also reflects an absolutist view that it is possible to avoid accidental injury or death, rather than simply to reduce the circumstances in which they might occur
However, the restrictions that are now imposed in the name of health and safety were far from the minds of parliamentarians in June 1974, as they put the finishing touches to the new law. MPs and peers were aware that this was not only pioneering legislation but potentially of great significance. The Act’s purpose was to implement the recommendations of the Robens Committee, which reported in 1972 and concluded that the existing workplace safety legislation was over-elaborate and confusing, with about 30 Acts and 500 sets of regulations.
Robens recommended a new structure underpinned by an enabling Act setting out the basic principles of safety responsibility, thereby providing a statutory base on which all future regulations could be founded. New rules would, if possible, be confined to general statements of the objectives to be achieved. Robens wanted greater reliance on standards and codes and for no regulation to be made at all if a non-statutory alternative was available. While many might question whether the ambition of fewer rules was realised, the legislation certainly did what it said on the tin.
Before the Act, 700 employees were dying every year on average and hundreds of thousands were being injured. Last year, the number of fatalities at work was down to 148 and non-fatal injuries have dropped by more than 75 per cent. Even for those of us who balk at excessive regulation, that is a considerable achievement, not least when you think that 500 workers have died on construction sites in Qatar since 2012, building the infrastructure for the World Cup in 2022. That certainly puts a ban on flags into perspective.
Throughout our history, health and safety laws have often been a reaction to appalling tragedies. In his ill-starred response to the pit disaster in Soma last month, in which 300 miners died, the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan cited examples from Britain’s industrial past to justify his own government’s inadequacies.
“I went back in British history,” he said. “Some 204 people died there after a mine collapsed in 1838. In 1866, 361 miners died in Britain. In an explosion in 1894, 290 people died there.” Indeed they did – but what is important is to learn the lessons. For instance, in 1862, when the beam of a pumping engine at Hartley Colliery in Northumberland broke and blocked the only mineshaft and means of ventilation, suffocating 204 miners, new legislation required that every seam should have at least two shafts or outlets.
Even as the more recent Health and Safety at Work Act was going through Parliament, an explosion at a chemical plant at Flixborough near Scunthorpe killed 28 people. Subsequent regulations imposed new rules on manufacturers who use dangerous substances. Why the Act was important is that is set out to prevent the accidents happening in the first place, rather than reacting to the death and injuries they cause, by which time it’s too late.
Forty years on, the Act has achieved what it set out to do, which is to insist upon high standards of health and safety in places of work. All we need do now is to apply the law with the common sense that inspired it in the first place.
By Philip Johnston, The Telegraph