Saturday, October 02, 2010

Saying "Nuts!" To Health And Safety

News, today, that the former British Trade and Industry secretary, Lord David Young of Graffham, has published recommendations to challenge local council decisions made on health and safety grounds will be music to the ears of those who think that the compensation culture has gone too far.

It's not often I find myself siding with the Daily Mail (after all, I no longer live in Middle England, I don't drive a Jaguar, I don't play golf, and I'm not interested any new aspects of Princess Diana's "tragic" life), but in their championing of the lunacy of 'Health And Safety Britain' we share common ground.

Some posts back I noted how no-one today seems able to leave the front door in Britain without donning a high visibility vest (even police horses have to wear them now). Earlier this week, BBC Breakfast ran a piece about schoolchildren learning to ride scooters in a playground and, lo and behold, each one of the mites were wearing junior-sized high-viz vests as they whizzed about the yard. Surely half the fun of being a kid is crashing into each other? I'm sure it's in their job description.

Under Lord Young's proposals, councils who ban events and activities on health and safety grounds without any meritable reason could face large compensation claims of their own. Speaking to the Daily Mail  - who else? - Young said that, in preparing his proposals, he'd uncovered pretty extraordinary examples of health and safety-gone-mad, including a local council that banned a traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake race because it was raining, and a restaurant that refused to offer toothpicks for fear of people injuring themselves. Presumably knives, forks, spoons and other hazardous culinary instruments fell under the same ban.

The workings of the somewhat Orwellian Health and Safety Executive in the UK has, for some time, been the fleshiest of meats for the media to growl about the British 'nanny state' which seemed to emerge during the Blair/Brown government. Created by the Health And Safety At Work Act in 1974, the HSE was somewhat dormant for much of the 70s and 80s, quietly going about its business in advising industry on practical measures to prevent factory and farming accidents. Its purpose was the application of safe working practices "when reasonably practical". But then, somehow and suddenly, it acquired a remit to nanny the life out of having fun, to end risk and common sense out of the mitigation of that risk. Kids could no longer enjoy conker fights without having to wear protective goggles, and ice cream parlours stopped adding nut toppings to ice creams in case they fell on the floor, causing an underfoot hazard. Nuts indeed.

No-one will deny the common sense of applying regulations to prevent factory and building site deaths. Some H&S rules do make sense. In France, for example, it's illegal to drive a car without having high visibility vests on board for all occupants. This is profoundly sensible when you have to abandon your car on the shoulder of an autoroute. It's the other aspects of health and safety madness, and the compensation culture that has come with it, which have gone too far. When 'no win, no fee' lawyers are taking on cases as trivial as a paper cut (no evidence of this, but I'm sure someone's thought about it), it's clearly time to reign in the excesses and embrace a little more risk without being told you can't by the high and mighty.

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