Health and safety: The fine art of making life safer

The number of people killed in accidents is lower than ever - a trend that is, to coin a phrase, no accident

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The Independent Online

It’s something we have all done, tutting at bans on conkers, hanging baskets and open-toed shoes in offices. How easy it is to mock the excesses of “elf ‘n’ safety” in a tone of knowing exasperation. How much harder to find out whether these stories are the product of zealous officialdom, or are misunderstandings, excuses made up by small businesses – or even sensible and well-founded precautions.

We know that the supposed excesses of health and safety legislation and its enforcers make easy copy for some newspapers, but let us note one big fact and one smaller one. The big fact is that fewer people are being killed and injured in workplace accidents than at any time in our industrialised history. Indeed, the numbers killed in accidents of all kinds are lower than ever. This trend is, to coin a phrase, no accident. It is the result of constant effort to make life safer.

The smaller fact is that Judith Hackitt, the chairman of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), is a thoroughly good thing. We interview her today, and she is a model of good sense. She balances a defence of her record in reducing workplace accidents and a debunking of myths about health and safety with a refreshing concern that many children today are “overprotected”. 

She says that children “should be able to play, fall over and hurt themselves”, which is not the sort of thing you might expect someone in her position to say. It is all the more important that she say it, therefore. 

Under her leadership the HSE has pushed back against the myths that surround its work, setting up a unit devoted to rebutting misconceptions about health and safety cases at the rate of two a week for the past two years. One academic study found that half of all the myths related to shops, cafés and leisure centres – which the HSE believes is the result of managers covering up poor business practice.

Ms Hackitt also has some sharp things to say about the tendency, often lumped in with complaints about health and safety excesses, to a compensation culture. “What people sometimes hide behind when they misuse the health and safety term is the fear of being sued, and no one wants to take responsibility for their actions,” she says. She is to be congratulated on her effort to take on the misconceptions that could undermine people’s confidence in the need for “genuine” safety precautions.

We ought to be proud as a nation, rather than making silly jokes about elf ‘n’ safety, that – as she reminds us – we are the first country to build an Olympic park and stadium without a single fatality.

In the last year for which statistics are available, 2013-14, there were 133 workplace fatalities in Great Britain. Every one is one too many, of course, but the number is much lower than the five-year average (164), at a time when the economy – including the manufacturing sector – is growing.

Indeed, the figure is so low that it invites us to reassess our priorities as a nation. Risk and probability are subjects on which it is notoriously hard to make public policy, but this figure of 133 deaths a year is striking when compared with the 2,000 a year killed in road accidents and the 5,000 a year killed in accidents in the home. Despite the worrying recent upturn, the death toll on our roads is another unsung success story, down from 8,000 a year in the mid-1960s.

It is accidents in the home where the focus of attention should be directed in future. Ms Hackitt should be given the job of making people more aware of dangers in the home. If anyone can, she can overcome people’s resistance to a safety campaign that would inevitably – and wrongly – be seen as a further intrusion of the elf ‘n’ safety nanny state.