Don’t knock ‘health and safety’. It saves lives

The risk is not of a society bound and gagged by red tape

It is a pity that the Health and Safety Executive has, as far as we know, yet to lay out its concerns on the excessive gnashing of teeth, because the molars of those who detest such “red tape” are in danger of being ground to smithereens. The latest sign that Britain has succumbed to a spineless form of bureaucracy is offered by the Conservative health and safety minister, who has warned schools and councils that the rules are being misapplied by ignorant “jobsworths”.

There are indeed examples of astonishing daftness. From the pupil whose plan to bring a chick into assembly was blocked for fear of its causing an outbreak bird flu, to the Manchester council that barred mourners from leaving loose flowers and pots on graves, the Health and Safety myth-busters’ panel – created to challenge inappropriate and illegitimate regulation – has had 300 cases to keep it employed over the past two years.

And yet, much as minister Mike Penning is right to condemn such misapplications of the rules, any attempt to bundle them up into the wider campaign against health and safety legislation – led by the Tory right – must be resisted. In 2010, David Cameron referred to a “monster” of red tape holding back small businesses. But the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act in 1974 led to decades of progress in protecting labourers from risk: 651 employees were killed in work clothes that year; by 2013, that toll had fallen to 148. It’s a peculiar sort of monster that compels employers to ensure, for example, that their staff aren’t exposed to asbestos, and can do their job at minimal risk of burns, bruises or an accidental battering.

In 2011, the Health and Safety Executive budget was cut by 35 per cent. Last week, Baroness Donaghy, author of the landmark 2009 report One Death Too Many, expressed fears that as a result of that reduction, the construction industry had become a “ticking time bomb” – with employers starting to cut corners once more. At a time of high employment but low job security, the risk is not of a society bound and gagged by red tape, but of the erosion of a vital consensus: you may give sweat at work, but never blood.