Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Lord Young's review offers neither "common sense" nor "common safety"

As regular readers will know, I'm more than a little sceptical about Lord Young's intentions. Not least because he views health and safety regulation as "a burden that we have to eliminate."

However, I must admit that his report, Common Sense, Common Safety (PDF), makes interesting reading. Not least because within it Lord Young makes many of the same assertions that I do with regard to the myths the media have built up around "elf 'n' safety."

Hat tip to Tabloid Watch for saving me work by fishing out the following quotes;
Britain’s ‘compensation culture’ is fuelled by media stories about individuals receiving large compensation payouts for personal injury claims and by constant adverts in the media offering people non-refundable inducements and the promise of a handsome settlement if they claim.
One of the great misconceptions, often perpetuated by the media, is that we can be liable for the consequences of any voluntary acts on our part. During winter 2009/10, advice was given on television and radio to householders not to clear the snow in front of their properties in case any passer by would fall and then sue.

This is another manifestation of the fear of litigation. In fact there is no liability in the normal way, and the Lord Chief Justice himself is reported as saying that he had never come across a case where someone was sued in these circumstances.
We have all read countless media stories blaming health and safety regulations for all manner of restrictions on our everyday life...

The Health and Safety Executive runs a successful ‘myth of the month’ page on its website; however, there is no end to the constant stream of misinformation in the media.

Again and again ‘health and safety’ is blamed for a variety of decisions, few of which actually have any basis in health and safety legislation at all.
The key point is that, so often, "the health and safety aspect of the story is a media addition." Unfortunately, it isn't just tabloid hacks like Richard Littlejohn who will "continue to get their 'mileage' out of it if they keep exaggerating or inventing these 'health and safety' stories."

Lord Young himself, after agreeing that the media take on health and safety is borne of myth, then agrees with their position on what to do about it. Hence the calls for "simplification" and "easing burdens" in a variety of areas as a prescription for a problem which doesn't exist. If the issue is "perception," as he accepts, then changes to legislation aren't necessary at all.

But they still crop up in his recommendations. He laments that safety regulations exist in all workplaces rather than just "hazardous" ones, and dislikes the fact that "risk assessments [are] compulsory across all occupations."

For example, he wishes to "exempt employers from risk assessments for employees working from home in a low hazard environment." It is couched in language that sells it as "common sense." After all, why obsess over the "low risk?" Except that home workers are still the responsibility of employers whilst on the clock. Particularly if they require specialist equipment as a result of disability, which is more difficult to manage when they are out of the office.

In fact, identifying and offering reasonable adjustments for health issues from back pain to crippling arthritis is part of the risk assessment process. Rather than being a burden, this is "immensely liberating" for disabled workers and allows them to carry on working effectively.

Performing a risk assessment simply means making sure that reasonably practicable measures exist to deal with foreseeable risks and hazards. Which, one would have thought, is common sense.

Not to mention, as Senior TUC health and safety policy officer Hugh Robertson notes, "the average employer will never see a health and safety inspector, and even if they are failing to fulfil their basic legal obligations, such as risk assessment, the chances of them being prosecuted are virtuallynil unless they kill or seriously injure anyone."

Amending the Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences (RIDDOR) Regulations is also on the agenda. Young wants to "extend to seven days [from three] the period before an injury or accident needs to be reported." Needless to say, such a move would be open to untold abuse. Especially given that so many accidents already go unreported, with 1.2 million people suffering work-related illnesses as a result.

The proposal that "police officers and firefighters should not be at risk of investigation or prosecution under health and safety legislation when engaged in the course of their duties if they have put themselves at risk as a result of committing a heroic act" is nothing more than a prescription to deal with an outright myth.

As is the idea that "officials who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing." Stories of such bans are spurious at best.

The entire raft of proposals to deal with a "compensation culture" are redundant given that "in nearly all cases there are less claims than there were 10 years ago," and "people can't claim compensation unless they have been injured because someone else is at fault."

All through the document, the stories Young admits are fallacious are trotted out as justifications for various recommendations. The fact that something "is seen as a cost and burden on business" becomes irrefutable proof that it must be scrapped, regardless of the fact that every single health and safety protection had to be fought, tooth-and-nail, for.

If businesses could profit from throwing its staff into a meat grinder, they would find ways to argue that prohibitions against doing so were an unnecessary "cost and burden."

This document, and the review behind it, is nothing more than a way of implementing an ideological attack on health and safety whilst conceding that every justification for said attack is fabricated and overblown nonsense. That "the aim is to free businesses from unnecessary bureaucratic burdens and the fear of having to pay out unjustified damages claims and legal fees." says it all.

David Cameron may be "delighted" that Lord Young has "put some common sense back into health and safety." But the rest of us - especially workers who depend on proper health and safety in their jobs - ought to be very worried.