Health and Safety myths debunked
Guest Post from one of our UK based authors
Everyone has a story about a health and safety rule which is affecting them at work or they have read about in the newspapers. They are rarely entirely accurate and sometimes don’t have even a kernel of truth in them, having been made up by a journalist short of a story. Some of them, however, have gone on to reach almost mythical status and can cause problems for companies, individuals and institutions – sometimes far more trouble than they would have caused had they been true. The problem when assessing the accuracy of health and safety myths is that everyone feels they must err on the side of caution, for fear that their action (or lack of it) could have serious consequences. Some of the most enduring stories are those involving the safety of children, perhaps because everyone feels that children can’t make decisions or look after themselves, so they need legislation and an adult to do it for them.
Conkers are banned
This is clearly nonsense as any two children who have a mind to can string a couple of horse chestnuts on string and play in their own homes or gardens. The story springs from one involving a head teacher who banned them in the playground unless the children were wearing safety goggles, knuckle protectors and other gear – the story does vary. Obviously teachers can’t allow children to hurt each other deliberately, by using conkers or any other weapon, but stopping them playing sensibly is not in the teachers’ remit. Teachers are in loco parentis when working and must just take all reasonable care – in other words, the care a normal level of parenting would require – to ensure that children are kept safe. Stories similar to this cover giving sweets to children – mostly Trick or Treat and children’s party situations. Although it obviously makes sense to tailor the kind of sweet to the age of the child and the situation – in other words, stick to sweets without an overt choking risk – again it is not ‘forbidden’ to give sweets to children. With any safety issue involving a minor, the rule of thumb should be to make sure that nothing you do is more risky than anything a reasonable parent would allow and to ask permission if that is feasible.
Ladders and steps are banned
The many adverts on television describing accidents at work have led to a perception in the public mind that all ladders and steps are banned in the workplace. This is clearly an impossible situation, because many jobs involve climbing and much of the day to day construction and renovation work, to name just one sector, would be impossible if workers were not allowed to leave ground level. The issue here is that leaving ground level much be made safe for everyone – for those on the ground subject to having things dropped on them as well as those climbing – and for this it is essential that an employer provides adequate training. There are mandatory responsibilities that all employers must take on board and using an affiliated trainer is vital because if an accident does occur then any shortfall in training will leave them liable for substantial damages which may not be met by insurance, if negligence can be proved. Sometimes a general working at height course is enough, but there are specific situations when a more specific training programme is needed – using any moving access equipment, for instance. There are dedicated ipaf training days which are useful for staff who use this type of equipment i.e. cherry pickers or powered access machines.
Risk assessments are mandatory for all tasks
Again, stories abound that staff are required to complete risk assessments for everyday tasks such as making coffee and sharpening a pencil. It is of course possible to write a risk assessment for any task and there are some common jobs that do need to be taken carefully and although a written risk assessment is not necessary, the need to alert people to possible dangers should be looked at in detail. Something that falls into this category is the provision and use of adequate warning signage – ‘Wet floor’ for example – and employing a very brief risk assessment to identify when it is used is all that is required. Sometimes, too much paperwork can be self-defeating, as no-one even bothers to read beyond the first paragraph.
The HSE can ban anything
The Health and Safety Executive has a watching brief but can also legislate within a company to ensure that the workplace is kept safe. They don’t ‘walk in’ (as it is often put in the Press) to close down a company because they are in breach of regulations. If there is a problem with health and safety in a particular situation there is of course a responsibility – usually the owner, but occasionally a council or other body – to get it put right, but unless the breach in conditions has been going on for a long time or there is an immediate and serious danger, the HSE will not summarily close down anywhere. Staff are able to report breaches of health and safety regulations to the HSE if their employers do not appear to be addressing an issue, but normally a discussion will put things right. During staff training sessions in correct use of equipment issues often come to light and a good employer will make sure that they listen to comments from staff on their return – this is a good way to make sure that the training is useful across the company and results in a safer working environment.
And finally – Graduates can’t throw their mortar boards in the air.
No – they can’t. These things cost money and throwing them in the air is bound to bend them, whether or not they take someone’s eye out! The HSE don’t mind at all what the graduate does with their mortar board – but the hire company might have a few things to say!