Opinion

How does the UK view health and safety?

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Health and safety is much maligned, but considering regulation has saved so many lives, it prompts the question – why? Academics have set out to come up with an answer.


It might seem strange to many casual observers that the improvements in the workplace brought about by health and safety legislation are held in little regard by some sections of the public and the workforce.

The positive effects that laws such as the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992 mean that, for the vast majority of employees in the UK, today’s daily working routines are far less dangerous than at any time in the past.

Of course, some occupations have inherent risks, but even these have more safeguards than ever to ensure that workers can expect the highest level of protection it is possible to provide via the correct use of, for example, safety equipment and good practice.

In spite of this, there is still some hostility towards health and safety and the rules and regulations governing employers and working practices.

Negative connotations
A two-year study by the universities of Portsmouth and Reading, funded by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), has been set up with the aim of discovering why health and safety regulation can be unpopular, even though it is proven to save lives and reduce injuries.

The background to the issue is that, until the late 1960s, there was a large number of health and safety laws addressing vastly different industrial and other commercial hazards that workers might face.

Since then, the make-up of the workforce has changed greatly, with heavy industry employing a smaller percentage of workers and service industries and office work expanding. Even so, every workplace environment contains risks to health. Safe practice and understanding of potential hazards is, therefore, essential.

Health and safety law responded by increasingly concerning itself with duties of care and risk assessment, which are seen by some as heavy handed and an example of the so-called ‘nanny state’ approach.

New research
The new research is being carried out by Dr Mike Esbester, a University of Portsmouth historian and expert in the rise of modern health and safety, in partnership with Professor of law Paul Almond, of Reading University.

Dr Esbester commented on the project: “This is a great opportunity to look back at what has changed and why, and to identify the turning points in public perceptions of health and safety in recent years. One of the particular strengths of what we’re doing is that it combines historical perspectives and contemporary practice – we want to see how the past influences the present, and how we might use that insight to make a difference in the future.”

Principal investigator on the project Professor Almond said: “Health and safety regulation is an important area of law that affects everyone. Events like the Piper Alpha fire, the 25th anniversary of which recently passed, and the more recent incidents at Buncefield in 2005 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010, illustrate the need for laws that protect people from the harmful side effects of work. We aim to find out why such negative public perceptions apply to it and what can be done about this,” he explained.

With the research aiming to explore the effects of social, political and economic changes since 1960 on the way health and safety regulation affects the workforce, a detailed analysis of the ways in which perceptions of regulation have changed will form an important part of the project.

Research and information services manager at IOSH Jane White said: “When the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, it was held in the highest regard – the solution to the needless deaths and injuries in our workplaces. Things have evolved and our workplaces have changed. The act is still as relevant as ever, but what has changed is the nature of the hazard.”

Misconceptions
One of the main reasons that health and safety regulations are unpopular is the misconception that things are taken too far in some cases. This is often fuelled by sensationalist media reports that have little basis in fact but nevertheless report instances where health and safety rulings seem to go against common sense and result in making people’s lives unnecessarily difficult or restricted.

This has even led HSE to publish a list of what it calls “blatant examples” of firms using health and safety as an excuse to refuse service, with examples including cafes refusing to heat up baby food and an airline refusing a passenger a blanket. HSE also points out the other side of the coin, putting the emphasis on many common health and safety stories that are in fact nothing more than urban myths.

Even though there are instances of wrongful perception or implementation of regulations, the fact remains that the UK’s workforce is far better off having them in place than they would be if there was no lawful protection at all.

Tony Skelton is managing director of Intersafety Ltd

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