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Health and Safety Myths in the UK
Posted by David Cant on April 19, 2012

In 2008 the Prime Minister David Cameron wrongly told the Tory party conference that monstrous health and safety legislation meant that teachers were unable to apply a plaster to a child’s grazed knee without contacting a first aid officer. Despite it being untrue, it highlighted for many the ridiculous nature of some health and safety legislation, and how it was impacting our ability to live free and responsible lives. The people of Lewes have burnt effigies of health and safety officers at their annual bonfire night. Health and safety officers, it seems, are public enemy number one.

Health and Safety Myths Busted

The point is that teacher’s need to know whether a child is allergic to plasters. If this is the case, it is likely to be rare and easy to remember. As long as the teacher can be sure the student isn’t allergic to plasters they can clean a cut or graze and apply a plaster without the fear of prosecution. It’s just one of many health and safety myths which exist in the UK, and something which the government’s Health and Safety Executive is attempting to debunk. Ridiculous health and safety situations arise often, but these are seldom the result of legislation itself, more of ill-informed health and safety officers who can make stupid recommendations in attempt to protect themselves and over-interpret the law.

Recently South West Trains health and safety officers had to “climb down” over instructing train station managers not to water plants using a ladder. The hanging baskets were 6ft in the air and for months the managers have been forbidden from reaching them using the ladder, thanks to over-sensitive health and safety officers. After receiving some publicity, South West Trains admitted there had been a “misunderstanding” and that using the ladders was OK.

Image used under a creative commons license courtesy of Montpelier on Flickr

Each winter in the UK, we hear about how health and safety rules mean that homeowners cannot clear the snow and ice from the pavements outside their home. If someone were to fall on a cleared piece of payment the person who had cleared would be culpable, or so goes the story. This is another myth which the HSE is keen to debunk. It clearly states on the DirectGov site that “anyone can clear snow and ice from the pavement outside their home or public spaces to prevent slips and falls”, and even provides a useful guide on how to do this safely.

Those in the know agree; it’s not legislators who are to blame for health and safety atrocities, but the health and safety officer who over-interpret the law, being deliberately cautious to cover their own back. As David Cameron put it “everyone’s so worried about being sued that they event lots of their own rules on top of the regulations that already exist”, arguing that the status quo “stifles judgement, personal initiative and responsibility”. These ideas work on the basis that the general public should be considered irresponsible and devoid of good judgement. They prevent people from being able to take responsibility for their own actions.

The situation has got so ridiculous that the Health and Safety Executive site has been listing its top health and safety myths in a “myth of the month” section. As they say, over-protective health and safety rules “trivialise the true purpose of health safety: protecting people from real risks”. Among their favourite health and safety myths are ones associated with Christmas; that children are banned from having snowball fights, office workers being told they can’t erect Christmas decorations, performers banned from throwing sweets to audience members, coins banned from Christmas puddings and Christmas lights needing to be PAT-tested annually. It’s important to draw a line of distinction between health and safety regulation and the over-protective ideas which health and safety officers attempt to enforce.

Alan Cairns writes on a number of subjects including health and safety, cherry picker hire and platform lifts.


Director at Veritas Consulting. The SME's favourite go-to consultant for health and safety know-how. Bucket loads of experience. Fluent in practical advice. Solutionist with a brain you can pick.

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