This month sees the end of a highly entertaining campaign by the Health and Safety Executive to target some of the myths surrounding their work. They’ve used humour in some delightful cartoon posters to get the message across that “elf and safety” is actually about common sense.
In particular, they wanted to tell people that they hadn’t banned anything, at least not in the way some of the media had portrayed it.
As they themselves put it, “There are few greater myths than that health and safety has gone mad. During the last four years we’ve debunked some truly ridiculous misrepresentations of health and safety, including the banning of conkers, firemen’s poles and park benches. We’ve scotched scare stories about excessive safety signs, rebutted rumours about onerous risk assessments and kicked back at claims that kids need to be wrapped in cotton wool.
“This trivialisation concerns us. It confuses businesses about their responsibilities and workers about their rights. HSE publishes advice setting out the sensible and proportionate steps we can all take to deal with workplace risks properly.”
It’s worth looking back to some of the issues they’ve highlighted. The campaign started in April 2007 with the curious myth that “they” had banned the use of stepladders.
The reality was that HSE had not banned stepladders – nor had they banned ladders! Despite this, the allegation was regularly repeated and some firms had fallen for the myth and acted upon it.
“For straightforward, short duration work stepladders and ladders can be a good option,” they explained, “but you wouldn’t want to be wobbling about on them doing complex tasks for long periods. A large number of workers are seriously injured or killed using ladders and stepladders each year. So:
Yes – we want people to use the right equipment for the job.
Yes – there are some common-sense rules for using them safely.
But no – we have not banned them!”
Then there were the myths about the theatre and performing arts. For a start, there was a lovely poster produced this time last year showing a pantomime dame being prevented from handing out sweeties. Health and safety rules had been blamed when a panto stopped throwing out sweets to the audience. In fact the real reaon was a concern about the cost of compensation if anyone got hurt.
“If you’re unsure about an event you’re organising, you might want to talk to your insurer to check that you’ve got the right cover and you’ve managed any risks effectively. It can help to make sure that trivial risks don’t cause too much concern.
Realistically, if a panto throws out sweets the chances of someone being seriously hurt is incredibly low. It’s certainly not something HSE worries about – as far as we’re concerned, this is a case of ‘Oh yes you can!’”
Even more curious was the myth that health and safety laws mean concert-goers had to wear earplugs. Again, the reality was that this was nonsense. Going to noisy concerts is choice of the individual. The laws are there to protect people who have to work in loud places.
However, they did explain that “concert staff are at more risk of suffering hearing damage because they regularly worked in high levels of noise. That is why employers should make sure they provide protection – this could be as simple as moving staff away from the noisiest areas, or providing suitable earplugs. Hearing loss is preventable, so it’s important to protect people to help them enjoy long and successful careers. The laws are there to control real risks to workers – not to take the fun out of concerts.”
There were the social myths as well. For instance “Health and safety bans bunting”. The claim was that assorted regulations effectively stopped people from hanging bunting at weddings and village fetes or flying flags for sporting events.
As the HSE explained, they actually encourage people to have a bit of common sense about their attitudes to risk, not to make everything risk-free. “ There won’t be an army of inspectors cutting down bunting or insisting flags are lowered.”
More amusingly, there was the myth that health and safety would bring candyfloss to a sticky end. As the HSE was quick to point out, “come the summer sun and what tops off a great day out better than good, oldfashioned candyfloss? But if you believe some newspaper headlines this beloved sweet treat is under threat – because of the dangers posed by the stick it is spun around. The truth is that there are no health and safety laws banning candyfloss on a stick.
“Is the traditional form of this sweet disappearing because it is easier to mass produce and store it in plastic bags? Who knows, but it certainly isn’t health and safety leaving anyone with a bad taste in their mouth.”
There were sensible and practical issues however. There was a curious myth that drivers didn’t need to secure a load if they were just driving down the road for a short distance.
That really is dangerous. The reality is that, if not properly secured, vehicle loads can become unsafe, even over a short distance. Loads that haven’t been firmly tied down increase the risk of vehicle rollover and spillage. They risk the lives of drivers and other road users, and can also cause annoying traffic disruption.
So the HSE stressed that “more than 1200 people a year are injured as a result of unsafe loads, and millions of pounds are lost in damaged goods. Don’t take the risk – make sure your load is restrained and contained!”
Finally, there’s the myth HSE still bans this, that and the other.
As they explained: The reality is that they’d “said it all before, but there are still too many reports that HSE and health and safety law are responsible for all sorts of bans – cheese-rolling events, knitting in hospitals and even toothpicks!
“In reality HSE has banned very little outright, apart from a few high-risk exceptions like asbestos, which kills around 4,000 people a year. Too often health and safety is used as a convenient excuse, but it’s time to challenge this and remind people to focus on the real risks – those that are still causing people to be killed, injured or made ill at work.”