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Health and Safety: The Case For The Defence

Health and Safety: The Case For The Defence

The chief danger in life, according to psychologist Alfred Adler, is that you may take too many precautions.

Health and safety is often held up - probably with a robust harness - as society's spoil sport, making daily life that little bit less liveable. Tabloids rail at a "health and safety gone mad" culture in the UK: the librarians prohibited from accessing books on high shelves "in the interests of health and safety", and absurd tales of trapeze artists wearing hard hats when performing.

The public standing of health and safety has nose-dived in recent times, even with vast reductions in the number of people injured or killed at work in the UK. A conveyor belt of sensationalist, often inaccurate, media stories about pedantic "risk spotters" undermining genuine safety policy undoubtedly hasn't helped. Common sense, it appears, has become a precious commodity.

The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 recently celebrated its 40th birthday. It has survived colossal changes in society, in technology and in the workplace. It has also escaped largely unscathed from various deregulatory political agendas.

Before the 1974 Act swept away some of the mess, our health and safety landscape was a confusing and contradictory jungle of complex duties and rules which applied only to specific processes and specific workplaces. Many workers and employers fell through the net, some factory owners deliberately so, having lobbied so robustly against the imposition of worker safety measures in the 1800s that Charles Dickens branded them "the Association for the Protection of the Right to Mangle Operatives."

It wasn't until 1844 - after decades of industrialisation - that dangerous machinery had to be fenced off to protect a workforce that included children as young as nine years old. The growing influence of trade unions and several high-profile public disasters played their part in extending work safety legislation to other industries such as mining and railways. However, it was clear even then that laws were targeting only identifiable and sector-specific dangers.

A new era for work safety began with Lord Robens' Royal Commission in 1970, the outcome of which was the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974. The regime overhaul following this Act has been monumental. Gone were the lists and lists of precise duties, replaced by an overarching risk assessment process covering all persons in the course of any employment.

The phrase "risk assessment" has, like "health and safety", become toxic. But its merits are sound when used with discretion and common sense. A principal legal duty under the 1974 Act is for "every employer to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees". This is emphatically not a requirement to eliminate all risk. No risk assessment for cracking a nut should conclude "use sledgehammer". The circumstances, risks and reasonable precautions for each organisation, from bookseller to multinational chemical transporter, will vary considerably.

Sadly, sometimes it is only after a fatality or serious injury that a negligent, reckless or unscrupulous employer can be exposed. It is the 1974 Act (and sentences for convictions under it) which helps to prevent rogue businesses from profiting by ignoring employee safety. Doing a job properly and safely may take longer but the adage, "if you think safety is expensive, try having an accident" rings loudly. Costs incurred after an accident can be staggering: compensation, court costs, legal fees, fines, site closures and lost working days are just the beginning.

The impact of the 1974 Act on the ground has been enormous: HSE figures indicate that fatal injuries at work have fallen from 651 in 1974 to 133 (20 of which were in Scotland) for the 2013/14 year - a fall of 85 per cent. The HSE rightly claims that this is still 133 too many, but it does represent a dramatic decrease in deaths at work per 100,000 workers: from 2.9 in 1974 to 0.4 in 2012/13.

Much of the credit for these encouraging figures must go to the HSE, another product of the 1974 Act, in its role as inspector, adviser and enforcer, and its range of free guidance materials to help businesses comply with the law. Of course, science, society and our economy have changed considerably in that time as well. But the move from mills, mines and manufacturing premises to twenty-first century open plan offices has brought its own twenty-first century dangers. An estimated 20 million working days are lost annually because of health issues caused by modern-day working, including musculoskeletal disorders, stress and depression.

The 1974 Act and its offspring regulations have been a force for good in radically improving how employees are expected to be looked after in the UK. The Act's significance lies not only in its universal applicability - it covers you whether you are hairdressing, farming or handling chemicals - but in its continuing relevance and resilience. Its revolutionary approach of having general duties on all employers to identify material risks makes it well-placed to deal with emerging and ever-changing risks, like those posed by an ageing working population, increased reliance on electronics and mental health issues in the workplace.

Adam McCabe

This article was published in The Herald on Monday 19 January 2015. A link to the article can be found here.