Health and safety: Is it time to shed the stereotypes?

The term ‘health and safety’ has become a catch-all cliché that is blamed for a number of society’s ills – but is it fair? Is ‘health and safety’ really a bogeyman, putting the brakes on the sorts of pastimes that we all used to enjoy in days gone by, ensuring red tape gets in the way of a good time? Is it a set of rules that get in the way from doing our job ‘the way it’s always been done’?

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The UK Health and Safety Executive is keen to shatter what it sees as the myths in this area. It’s gone as far as to list the ten worst in a bid to show that legislation is not about being a party pooper.

Judith Hackitt, the chair of the Health and Safety Executive, told The Independent: “Real health and safety is about protecting people in the workplace from life – and health-threatening risks – not about refusing to apply suntan lotion, or put sauce on an ice cream.”

The rules of the workplace are there to protect employees and companies from being exposed to potential hazards – from the typical office through to industrial sites.

Take abrasive blasting. This is the process of firing a high-pressure stream of abrasive materials onto a surface – typically to smooth it off, clean it or remove such as unwanted materials from a surface.

It’s specialist, important and can, without following the rules, be dangerous.

The US state department of Washington pinpoints nine potential hazards that are associated with this type of work. These include the potential for lung disease that could arise from breathing in the hazardous dusts containing lead, silica and other substances.

Employees have specialist protective equipment – developed using years of industry experience – and respiratory protection to prevent them breathing in anything they shouldn’t.

That’s all backed up by vigorous administrative and engineering controls that ensure the materials and machinery are kept in the right conditions. It’s a far cry from regulating playground conkers and it’s a serious business.

Jeremy Hagan, vice President, sales & marketing, of blasting company Airblast AFC said it is a matter the firm takes very seriously. He explained: “Our blast rooms are designed with the safety of the worker in mind, including proper ventilation to reduce dust, built-in sound attenuation and fall protection.”

In essence the lessons of the blasting industry apply to less dangerous working environments too. We’ve looked at that because it combines three or four big hazards in one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t apply the same logic elsewhere.

While the average office worker may well not be exposed to chemicals, intense heat or extreme heights, rules are there to help us with more everyday hazards.

The training and requirements when lifting, for example, may seem small in comparison to the sorts of things required in heavy industry but when it comes health this can be important.

Back injuries can impinge on someone for the rest of their life and could cost a slapdash business a lot of money in compensation. Health and safety isn’t about setting employer and employee at loggerheads in a legal battle though – it’s about ensuring that this never happens. The rules and guidelines on how we work are there to protect both parties.

Interestingly this opens up the dilemma affecting the US. In America the debate surrounding health and safety – or occupational health – begins from a different starting part. Everyone is aware of the infamous ‘compensation culture’ of the US and does take health and safety rules more seriously as a result.

Health and safety rules range from the very basic in the average office – right through to specialist industrial sectors. It’s clear that the UK and US come at this from different cultural mindsets – with many fearing that the UK will follow the lead of the US – but it’s clear that this is also a field heavily loaded with myth and misunderstanding.

Next time you see a scare story blaming ‘health and safety’ consider this: is this actually a case of someone wrongly applying the rules? What actually is ‘health and safety’ and how do these rules protect me?

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