Health and Safety - reframed as a term of abuse

By Mallen Baker: Posted 17 Jan 2012

UK Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to "kill off Britain's health and safety culture for good." Anyone looking from the outside might think this a remarkable statement - akin to promising to clamp down on nice things in order to spread nasty ones. But of course it is a statement that acknowledges how much the term 'health and safety' has come in the popular consciousness to represent something completely different.

In terms of the public debate, there has been a huge amount of rhetoric around the excesses of the 'health and safety culture' - in much the same way that people rail against excessive bureaucracy in the European Commission. Both are fueled by newspaper stories of ridiculous rules - many of which turn out on closer examination to be mis-represented or even wholly fictitious. Many - but not all.

Some of the ridiculous rules, it is claimed, add enormously to the burden borne by businesses.

Good Corporation fired back with a well-framed counter argument. They point out that health and safety legislation in the UK has been in place over a period when there has been an 80 per cent reduction in workplace fatalities. The UK's fatal injury rate is one of the lowest in Europe and has been for some time. The number of deaths has fallen from 651 per year to 171 last year.

Oh, and rather than being a burden to businesses, they say that figures from the Health and Safety Executive show savings of almost 600m pounds per year based on the reduction in lost time from injury and illness.

Personally, I wonder where the balance is - and even speculate whether balance is even what we really want.

It's probably about 15 years ago, I was first given a tour around a DuPont factory in Northern England and shown how it approached its 'zero accidents' target. At the time, the idea of setting a target for zero accidents seemed very radical stuff - quite unrealistic.

But they had been immensely successful in bringing incidents down to vastly reduced levels, and as they detailed all the measures they had introduced I became more and more impressed - as much by the mindset as anything. Any target higher than zero was unacceptable. If the figure wasn't zero today, then they would apply energy and ingenuity into identifying why not, and changing how things were done, or the culture of how people approached their work.

You can't legislate for that kind of creative application, of course. Legislation comes in to prevent the opposite extreme - the dirty, dangerous factories run by bosses who couldn't care less about the well-being of their employees, but are simply trying to get results by keeping costs as low as possible.

But the real problem is the human habit of being able to create unintended consequences from the best of intentions once they have been systematised.

For instance, some campaigning unions attack DuPont because they claim its approach "blames the workers rather than company practices" for accidents, and its target of zero accidents actually encourages non-reporting. It's a bit of an ideological case - founded on an argument over 'who is to blame'. Whereas my memory of the DuPont presentation was that it was about analysing why accidents had happened, and what needed to change to prevent them in the future.

Certainly, companies I speak to today that are serious about health and safety agree that the majority of workplace accidents they see come about from 'slips, trips and falls' and quite often from incidents where people behave in ways that are contrary to the established rules and procedures.

I have interviewed workers who have commented about what they see as 'over the top' rules on health and safety that they and their colleagues make a virtue out of bending when they can get away with it. Men working on the front line of manual industries are, after all, strong and fit. They see health and safety measures as completely ridiculous nannying. And they read the tabloid newspapers that constantly reinforce this belief every day.

To acknowledge this is not to 'blame the workers'. To see part of the health and safety puzzle to be one of changing the culture of how people think about their work is, for me, something that a company does when it is serious about achieving change.

But we do still see bad systems, and generally they are bad when the policies become divorced from the common sense element of why they are there.

The latest example I saw whilst writing this article was in the US, of a woman fired from her job because she worked through her lunchbreak to finish a project. The company, in line with State law, required a half hour lunchbreak. And, of course, it is good for workers to get a break in the middle of the day. It is good for the health, and generally good for their productivity through the afternoon.

But that basic welfare starting point became, instead, a fear of litigation. So instead the company promoted this employees wellbeing ... by firing her.

Wherever you look, whether it be the scores of absurd implementations of 'zero tolerance' or some of the other health and safety or environmental programmes, you will find people that have found ways to make sensible measures into ridiculous travesties of what they were meant to be.

Like the child who found a knife lying around his school, handed it in to the principal's office, only then to be suspended under the school's 'zero tolerance' policy for having been in possession of an offensive weapon. Your reaction to that story may be simply to conclude that people as dumb as that particular school principal should not be allowed to breed. But you don't have to go to those extremes to understand that rules designed for large organisations - where large numbers of potential variations are possible for all sorts of situations - will almost always have unintended consequences.

And some of those unintended consequences will erode support for the good things the policy was designed to achieve in the first place.

The HSE notes that more than half of workplace fatal accidents involve being struck by vehicles, being struck by falling objects, or falling from height. A well-run workplace should surely be able to avoid the majority of hazards that result in such outcomes.

Personally, I believe the right approach is not about 'who to blame' but 'who takes responsibility'? And in that case, every employee should buy into the idea that they take responsibility for themselves and their colleagues - by seeing any potential hazard as something that they should act on and resolve ("don't walk by") AND management - who need to ensure that company processes and programmes of incentives don't create unnecessary hazards and who are, after all, primarily responsible for driving that culture of values through the business.

I suppose part of me is in support of David Cameron's view that we could clear out some of the rules that businesses have to follow that get into micromanaging people in ways that really aren't very effective. But it should be done in such a way as not to throw away the real benefits that have been achieved. I'm not sure such fine distinctions are immediately evident to politicians seeking popular headlines during difficult times.

We should start by recognising that promoting the right corporate values is better than imposing detailed sets of rules.

See all recent articles