A personal view of health and safety in UK after Lord Young’s Report

Soon after the new coalition government came to power they asked Lord Young to carry out a review of health and safety in the UK. What the resulting report (Common Sense, Common Safety) said was not a surprise to anyone who is a health and safety professional because they had been saying much the same things for years.
Health and safety has increasingly been used as a stick to beat people with rather than a means of protecting them. This misuse of Regulation has not in the main come from professionals but from people who have used fear of the law for the own ends or to further their own agenda.

In addition, unscrupulous lawyers have used the “no win, no fee” pretext to push forward a compensation culture that has harassed employers and brought health and safety into disrepute. In this mix, people taking personal responsibility for their own actions has been all but lost as a concept.

This is a sad situation. Why? Because all the hard work of the last forty years has been reduced to newspaper sensationalism and jokes for would-be comedians. Lost in all of this is the real truth that accident rates have fallen, ill- health at work has been reduced and many unsafe practices have been outlawed forever, making the modern workplace the safest it has ever been.

Of course that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to stop trying to improve or that accident rates don’t matter anymore. Every serious incident has effects far beyond any damage to the individual involved. There is still much work to be done.

Sadly it is unlikely that Lord Young’s report will be the catalyst to real change but it may chip away at the edges. My worst fear is that it may give succour to those who would like to abandon health and safety and take risks again with people’s lives.

The main thrust of Lord Young’s report is that we should all take a common sense approach to health and safety. That is exactly what many have been trying to do for some years now, basing their decisions upon a balanced and sensible methodology and not a knee-jerk reaction to a situation or slavish adherence to every word in Regulations.

Isn’t the whole idea of risk assessment that we take responsibility for making decisions based upon local information and intimate knowledge of a particular situation and then apply suitable control measures to mitigate the risk? If those decisions challenge the normal way of doing things isn’t that exactly the point – that health and safety precautions should grow, develop and improve over time?

It has been said that any organisation that does health and safety well is likely to do all the other things well too. That is because it is essentially a quality management system that requires attention to detail mixed with a good dash of common sense. Did we actually need a government report to tell us that?

David Vallender.
February 2011.