Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Deadly rules

Article in The Guardian by Cath Janes on 14 March 2009

A refreshing article that explores some of the issues about health and safety being allowed to go over the top. Some excerpts below

Our office has fire doors which we actually prop open with fire extinguishers. We know we shouldn't - but we do it anyway. These are the words of an office manager who wishes to remain anonymous.

The Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, so health and safety should be second nature by now. But it's not. Employees continue to complain about the inconvenience of fire drills and computer monitor adjustments. Yet experts continue to point at the Health and Safety Executive's (HSE) reports of 2.1 million people suffering from illnesses they believe to have been caused or worsened at work.

"Health and safety should be a powerful unifying agenda between employers and the workforce, not a matter for confrontation," says Judith Hackitt, chair of the HSE. "The problem tends to be the misinterpretation of what is actually required." One recent initiative tries to dispel the idea that risk assessments need to be 10 pages or more for every task. "We have shown what's 'good enough' and that's all you have to do," says Hackitt.

David Symons, director at WSP Environment & Energy, a consultancy firm says "The problem is that health and safety is applied by people who don't have a deep understanding of what needs to be done. It's no wonder that it is seen as an impediment to the day job. It's not the legislation that's an issue, it's the implementation of it." "We are all adults," he says. "Let's just communicate the principles well. Communicate badly and it comes off as patronising. And if that's the case, and health and safety isn't being achieved, something has to be done about it."

"Paperwork is a sign of bad health and safety management," claims Lawrence Waterman, chairman of another consulting firm, Sypol. "If you are not rigorous in reviewing procedures you get a lot of bureaucracy and lose track of what you are asking people to do. Yes, it can be sensible to jot things down but there's a fine line between risk management and bureaucratic obstruction.

"That's why health and safety is a job for professionals. They can weave safety procedures through good business practice and not have it hanging about as a separate dynamic."

Business psychologist Pearn Kandola. "Humans want to fight against those rules though. We like to be free and intuitive and follow our emotions.

"There's also a reason why health and safety isn't second nature. It's because humans are risk-takers. We are not naturally safe and don't like health and safety, or the people who implement it, because we perceive them to be rule-bound and boring. While their role is essential it is never going to appeal to us, because we don't like rules and regulations."

Which, in the fight against the ministry of the bleedin' obvious, is a snag. Are employees ever going to prove they don't need to be warned against sticking their wet fingers in plug sockets? Surely what lies at the heart of health and safety is common sense, and we all have that ... don't we?

"You hear people saying that it is all about common sense," agrees Duff, "The problem is, they don't use it. We are not rational beings and accidents are often the result of irrational behaviour. We think we are great at making our own rules, but we are not."

Is this still a reason to treat employees like children, though? Problems in the workplace often lead to demotivation, low productivity and withering loyalty. Health and safety is no exception. On one hand you are considered savvy enough to close a deal with a client, yet on the other you are considered a prime candidate for a box-lifting demonstration. It's little wonder health and safety rankles. It's almost a reminder that you are not as in control as you thought you were.

"Which is why risks should be managed in a proportionate way rather than wrapping people up in cotton wool and taking the fun out of life," warns Derek Draper, senior consultant at Connaught Compliance. "The bonkers conkers stories just trivialise health and safety and detract attention from the task of keeping people safe at work. Risk assessment needn't be complicated though. After all we do a subconscious risk assessment every time we so much as cross the road."

Hackitt, of the HSE, has a final suggestion. "Challenge your employer but do it constructively," she says. "Don't turn health and safety into a management versus workforce confrontation issue. Offer solutions or more common sense ways of approaching the problem. Remember, it's about doing what is sensible, reasonable and practical to reduce risk, not eliminating it, and still getting on with your job."

Andy Brazier

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