Defending Health and Safety
I have a confession to make: I’m a big fan of health and safety. I’m not just saying that just to be contrary, or because I like everything the Tories don’t and vice versa – I genuinely think that it’s a good thing. Workers’ Memorial Day exists because of the thousands of people who have been killed or injured in industrial accidents. The number of deaths from industrial accidents in the UK is about a third of what it was in the early 1980s, and although it’s likely that part of the trend is due to a decline in some of the more dangerous types of work, such as mining, there are substantial decreases across all employment sectors – and that’s probably because the health and safety legislation first introduced in the mid 1970s was starting to have an effect.
When David Cameron says that he wants to reduce the “red tape” burden on businesses, what he means is that he doesn’t want your employer to have to meet the costs of looking after your safety at work. Rather than being a manifestation of the nanny state that tells ordinary working people they don’t have the sense to look after themselves, health and safety is their protection from bosses who would pressure them into unsafe working practices, or neglect maintenance, just to save a bit of money. Cameron’s comments on “ending health and safety culture” are a clear demonstration of where his loyalties lie, and that he doesn’t understand what it’s like to work anywhere more dangerous than an office.
Unlike Cameron, I’ve had some insight into what it’s like to work in places where health and safety really matter. The year after I graduated from university, I worked in an outdoor education centre that schools and youth groups used for residential trips where they could try activities like canoeing and abseiling. We had health and safety regulations coming out of our ears, but for a very good reason: twenty years ago, when centres like the one I worked in were less regulated, children died. Decent equipment and properly trained staff might be expensive, but they save lives and prevent serious injuries.
Critics of health and safety say that it is an insult to our collective intelligence, but there were two things that I saw during my year in outdoor education which made me question the nature of common sense. First of all, I discovered that a few of the men I worked with used to set fire to their own arses for fun. It wasn’t even for a bet; one day somebody thought it would be a laugh, and it kind of caught on and became this weird game called “flaming arseholes”. It’s probably just luck that nobody ended up in hospital or burned down the staff accommodation block, but when people realise that they can get away with doing something stupid and dangerous, they’ll keep on doing it until their luck changes.
Secondly, I realised that some of the things we think of as common sense are learned responses, and this can be shown up when people are in an unfamiliar environment, where their previous knowledge just doesn’t apply. A lot of the kids I met during my year in outdoor education came from Birmingham or Inner London, and for some it was the first time they’d ever been outside the city. They had no idea what risks to look out for in the countryside, so had to be taught that wild animals are best left alone, even when they’re small and harmless-looking, or that there are some places where swimming in the sea is really dangerous. Going into a new workplace can be a bit like that; it might be really obvious to someone who has worked there for years that you don’t touch that or stand there, and you can’t rely on the confused newbie to work it out for themselves.
If, as Cameron says, health and safety regulations cost jobs, I’d hate to see what those extra jobs in his deregulated utopia would be like. However, if working conditions become more dangerous, then at least it’ll open up opportunities for people on the dole to get into work by traditional route of the dead man’s shoes.