Bogus health and safety culture a banana skin for UK plc

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Thursday, 4 April 2013 - Dave Fawbert

Report on needless bans has exposed a managerial jobsworth mentality that can only be bad for the country’s economic performance


Idle management has spawned a culture of bogus health and safety bans, according to research from the government body in charge of preventing slips and trips. In its first-ever annual report, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) cited 150 cases of businesses and public bodies clamping down on activities that were in fact completely legal and safe.

Examples of such “nonsense” bans included a party venue blocking the use of a bubble-making machine; a hotel refusing to make up a cot bed on the grounds that it was a “hazard”; and bars locking away “dangerous” pint jugs with handles.

HSE chief Judith Hackitt has blamed a jobsworth mentality among managers for ushering in the bogus bans. “The reality is that people hide behind health and safety when there are other reasons for what they’re doing – fear of being sued perhaps, or bad customer service,” she said. “It’s time for them to own up to their real motives.”

Of course, ‘elf and safety is a much-beloved topic for the likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Littlejohn, as well as a constant source of complaint since the turn of the millennium. Only last week, the Sun ran a front-page story on a school banning triangular flapjacks for being too dangerous due to their “sharp” edges. The fact that square shapes were permitted – giving the flapjacks an additional, deadly corner – was not lost on the eagle-eyed hacks at Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid.

The report panel rightly stressed that it makes the HSE’s job harder: bogus bans give health and safety laws a bad reputation, so people may well ignore them when they are actually warranted. At the same time, the bans demonstrate shockingly bad management by the companies and bodies involved. It is unacceptable that hiding behind these laws has become a readymade means for covering up bad service, avoiding difficult tasks or being overtly sensitive about lawsuits.

While the latter reason could be valid in certain circumstances – with the UK constantly on the brink of imitating a US-style blame culture – the application of managerial common sense can in most circumstances forestall legal risks. No business can survive by grabbing hold of the nearest shield for poor management. As if providing more easy fodder for Clarkson and Littlejohn were not enough, it can only be bad for the health and safety of UK plc.

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