Talk of health and safety in countries with powerful neoliberal interests has been dominated recently by notions of red tape, of a burden on business.
This way of framing debate has consistently pushed into the background reductions in death and serious injury achieved by legislation and its enforcement, by innovation and by organisations and their managements engaging with workforces to improve working conditions.
It is very similar to the way in which taxation is discussed, not as the way to raise revenue for socially valuable activities, such as health services, infrastructure, teaching the young, etc. or for sharing the wealth around to alleviate poverty and obtain some of the benefits of a more equal society, but as a burden.
We get the tax burden and the alternative of tax relief, so tax is presented as harmful and to be opposed, reduced, prevented. Certainly, this is done not with any argument, but simply by the language used. Similarly, health and safety regulations, and by extension health and safety action is, by definition and assertion, red tape.
This isn’t an academic point. When the Health and Safety Executive’s budget is cut year on year to 40% below the level in 2010/11, and local authority proactive inspections are at three per cent of the rate achieved just 10 years ago, we can see that the denigration of health and safety effort has a practical impact. It clears the way for austerity to radically cut a key driver for decent workplace standards.
More dramatically, when the then housing minister Brandon Lewis, now chairman of the conservative party, received the coroner’s report on the Lakanal House fire, which questioned the safety of cladding on residential buildings in the light of the six deaths, he told Parliament that he couldn’t introduce new Building Regulations until two or three sets of other regulations were earmarked for revocation, “because this Government is opposed to red tape”.
It seems likely that the subsequent 71 deaths in the Grenfell Tower disaster will provoke a shake-up of the regulations, but what a price to pay for belated action!
Since its foundation, the British Safety Council has campaigned for better standards of health and safety in workplaces and the wider community. Our vision of no one being killed, injured or made ill by their work has inspired the many member companies to demonstrate every day that effectively managing risk is good for business.
We know that far from being a burden, good and proportionate health and safety protection is a vital part of safeguarding ourselves and our loved ones, our colleagues, our customers and our neighbours.
Not tied up in red tape, we see high standards as our shield against harm and simply do not recognise the caricature of safe working as a problem; it is the solution.
From leadership development to practical toolkits, we shall continue to motivate, enthuse, encourage and empower people to manage their workplace risks so that their organisations can continue to prove that good risk management is just good management. And we shall also continue to engage in the wider public debate, to extend public understanding and pride in the great achievements made in improving wellbeing at work. How much more burdensome is accidental injury than the precautions that protect?
Lawrence Waterman OBE is Chair of the Board of Trustees at the British Safety Council
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