Editorial: A timely toast to health and safety

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From banning Santa from riding his sleigh to stopping children from throwing snowballs, health and safety legislation gets a bad rap these days, at no time of the year more than at Christmas, when the cultural clash between killjoy puritans and Merrie England's devil-may-care revellers appears most acute.

We all think we know how a set of rules once designed to protect us has grown to the point where it winds its coils around every department of life, crushing the life out of the most harmless pastimes and traditions.

But what if much of what we think we know about "elf 'n safety" is a grotesque distortion, or a complete myth? Such are the challenging conclusions of the latest report by the mythbusters challenge panel, which the Health and Safety Executive tasks with taking a closer look at some of the many complaints each year about way that the law operates. Its findings suggest that in 38 of the 100 most egregiously killjoy-like rulings, workplace safety laws either had nothing to do with the said ban on Christmas lights, playing conkers, or whatever else, or were being interpreted lazily or with a wholly unnecessary degree of caution, usually by local authorities.

As HSE bosses keep noting, the main concern of the law is addressing the real risks that cause unnecessary workplace deaths and injuries. This is the oft-forgotten point; without these sometimes annoying, often poorly interpreted laws, the number of fatalities at work might not have dropped by half since the early 1990s, from around 350 a year back then to around 170 a year now. Without them, we might have the same horrifically high rate of industrial or office-related deaths and accidents that blight and destroy almost countless lives in developing countries where such laws are not in place or are poorly enforced.

Shocking as it may sound, we raise a festive seasonal glass to our much maligned health and safety laws – fully aware, as we do so, of the potential risks involved.

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