The University of Exeter's research on the Myth Busters Challenge panel shows in stark terms that we have allowed myths detract or divert our attention from more important issues.
Many column inches have been devoted over the years to health and safety myths. Some commentators and publishers have become addicted to constantly repeating silly stories that purport to show the harm that the application of health and safety regulations and rules cause.
In December 2014 Dr Claire Dunlop, senior lecturer in the politics department at the University of Exeter, published the findings of research she and colleagues undertook analysing 272 cases submitted to HSE’s Myth Busters Challenge Panel between April 2012 and March 2014.
While acknowledging the damage done by health and safety myths, specifically undermining public confidence in the contribution to society made by effective regulation and management of health and safety risks, the vast majority of ‘complaints’ reported to HSE’s Challenge Panel related to occurrences outside of what we understand as the workplace. These are occurrences that have traditionally been seen as covered by the term ‘public safety’.
What Dr Dunlop’s research clearly highlights is that almost three-quarters of the myths analysed were concentrated in six sectors away from workplace health and safety issues – leisure, retail, education, food safety, transport and housing. Only one-sixth of the analysed complaints related to health and safety in the workplace.
Fourteen groups of citizens were classified for the purposes of this research, but three “bear the brunt of complaints”: consumers, children and citizens accessing public services, who together accounted for almost two-thirds of myths reported to the panel.
The report notes: “The impact of health and safety myths on children is the most surprising finding; children are frequently prevented from engaging in activities... on the grounds of health and safety that are found to be baseless.”
The research identifies recurring themes which relate to gaps and weaknesses that exist in three aspects of organisations’ capacity. Administrative pressures, particularly deficiencies in staff training, fear of legal action and cost pressures are cited. Risk aversion is another significant theme and a characteristic of poor customer service. The third significant theme relates to erroneous use of health and safety to defend totally unrelated decisions. As the report notes, “the data do not allow us to make any statements as to causation”.
Almost 80% of referrals or ‘complaints’ to the panel reviewed by the research came from members of the public and press coverage. In contrast, just 10% came from employees.
Taken together the findings of this research show in stark terms that we have allowed myths, the vast majority of which have a tenuous link to the real challenges we face in preventing injury and ill health in the workplace, detract or divert our attention from more important issues. As the research notes mundane matters dominate the cases studied.
The final word rests with Professor Paul Almond of the University of Reading, whose extensive work has been reported in Safety Management over the last five years. In his paper The dangers of hanging baskets: Regulatory myths and media representation, he concluded: “Shifting the context of the debate on health and safety entirely away from these stories perhaps provides a better way of recasting the nature of public discourse in this area.”
Neal Stone is the acting chief executive of the British Safety Council
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