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Written by
on 29 November 2017


People often say “health and safety has gone too far”. But are they right?

Complaints about health and safety are increasingly common; criticism from tabloid newspapers is increasingly loud and hysterical. And we’ve all heard the condemnation; “health and safety gone mad”, “wouldn’t have been a problem in the past”, “back when I was an apprentice…”, “elf n’ safety”.

The implication is that health and safety measures are ruining our lives. That the measures that protect us are a PR exercise, propping up a health and safety industry that is largely unnecessary in the lives of “normal” people.

Elf n’ safety

Before going any further, it’s important to note that there are genuine problems with some activities passed off as health and safety. Here at Veritas Consulting we call it ‘elf n’ safety’, in recognition of the silliness of these stories.

Some of our favourites include bans on Mortarboards, parents in playgrounds, and pin the tail on the donkey. These prohibitions come from a lack of experience in health and safety risk assessment, or are simply an excuse to limit activities that the organisation does not want to participate in.

Unfortunately, these crazy decisions are the ones that make the headlines, helping to create a negative attitude towards health and safety.

Have we gone mad?

Putting these baffling examples aside, the question remains – has health and safety gone too far? A look at the available evidence suggests that the answer is ‘no’.

According to HSE statistics, the number of deaths in the workplace has been steadily falling since 1975. A combination of factors has helped reduce deaths from 495 each year, to 137 last year. These include better training and improved technology – in combination with stronger health and safety provisions.

If deaths at work have fallen by 75%, it is impossible to say that health and safety has gone too far. In fact, while there are still people dying at work, it could be argued that health and safety has not yet gone far enough.

Striking a balance

In many ways, the actual problem is not health and safety itself, but how it is presented. Too much focus is given to elf n’ safety, and not enough to how modern working practices, risk assessments and tightened legal frameworks are helping to reduce workplace fatalities.

Most instances of elf n’ safety are borne out of a desire for the right thing, to completely remove the risk of injury or death. The problem is that potential risks are overstated and activities banned, rather than applying common sense or providing basic training.

And once these “crazy” decisions are made public, it simply helps to fuel the idea that we live in a world where “health and safety has gone mad”.

Anyone involved with health and safety has a second, unofficial responsibility – to help uphold the importance of keeping people safe at work. Instead of taking ludicrous decisions to ban low-risk or unlikely activities, they should instead be working with their employees to understand the importance of effective health and safety, and to ensure that guidelines are being applied sensibly.

For more help and advice on avoiding the elf n safety trap – and to do your bit to prevent workplace accidents or injuries – please get in touch.

A chartered (fellow) safety and risk management practitioner with 20+ years of experience. David provides a healthy dose of how-to articles, advice and guidance to make compliance easier for construction professionals, Architects and the built environment. Get social with David on Twitter, Facebook and Linkedin.

  • N Young says:

    As much as the ‘elf and Safety Jobsworth idea is perpetuated by ‘Journalists’ in the likes of the Daily Mail we as H&S professionals still need to look into how we are representing ourselves and a little pragmatism goes a long way.

    Banning conkers in schools and not being able to use a toilet in a store on the grounds of H&S doesn’t help and people hide behind H&S when actually it has nothing to do with H&S sometimes.

    Absolutely agree that the decline in stats (Deaths, accidents etc.) is a massive justification of our existence and role in industry – imagine the outcry if we just let everyone do whatever they wanted without fear of ramification.

    • st3vEquin0x says:

      Well said. And thanks for dropping by with your comments. Where do you see the future for health and safety regulations with Brexit?

  • Taylor says:

    Health & Safety in the workplace has gone absolutely mad.

    Construction sites require you to wear high visibility vests and a hard hat… except your INSIDE THE BUILDING. I can understand if there is heavy machinery operating or if you are in traffic. ?? what?

    Walmart now requires the guy pushing shopping carts around in the parking lot to wear a high vis vest. None of the customers are wearing them, and they all seem fine. ??? what?

    Bus drivers need to wear a high vis vest – while driving – as if this is going to somehow save them from an accident. ??? what?

    I saw a city employee walking around picking up garbage from a grassy field. High visibility vest is required. ??? what?

    Now I can understand a *reasonable* requirement to hedge against risk. Protective work boots if you could drop something on your toes, wearing gloves if you are handling things that could be sharp, masks if you are in a dusty environment or dealing with hazmat. But if I’m on my knees in a practically finished building grouting tiles, wearing safety boots, hard hat, high visibility vest, gloves (and beleive me, you just *cant* do grouting wearing gloves), why in gods name should I be wearing 30 pounds of gear. Maybe I should wear a fall protection harness and clip myself to the ceiling too, in case I pass out and fall flat on my face while I’m at it; heck, why not, I’m certified.

    The level of PPE should be appropriate to the task at hand, but it’s gone mad. I work less formal residential sites, and I can wear running shoes, no hardhat, and no need for a high vis vest. I can do the same job on a formal construction site and I’d be kicked off the job – even if the building is completed.

    There is a cost to this to the employer. People don’t want to show up for work, people forget one item or another and get sent home, and the employee shows up more tired than they should be because they are lugging around all this equipment that they only need to meet regulations.

    It’s insanity, really. Walking around the city it seems like everyone is wearing high visibility. What, is macular degeneration an epidemic? If someone can’t see, maybe they shouldn’t be driving in the first place.

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