Stephen Chaffey: Is 'health and safety' nanny state at work or just sensible rules?

ARE we too risk-averse as a nation? According to the government, the answer is yes. Former Tory minister Lord Young has been tasked with reviewing health and safety legislation and compensation culture, with a report to be published at the end of the summer.

This has been on the Conservative Party's radar for some time, and the Young review was trailed in December 2009 by David Cameron. Citing examples such as office workers being banned from moving a chair without expert supervision, the review will look at taking a more common-sense approach to health and safety.

Lord Young's review might go some way to dispelling some of the myths about health and safety's status as a by-word for excessive caution and restriction. Organisations should measure and manage risk, but it is impossible to eliminate risk completely. The important thing is to apply a mature outlook to identify where the risks may be, carry out robust risk assessments and put in place appropriate policies and training to reduce those risks.

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Where you hear of extreme decisions adopted by organisations, they tend to be as a result of over-zealous interpretation of health and safety laws rather than as a direct result of the underlying rules themselves. Hopefully, the review will promote a more balanced approach and focus on what are sensible and important principles.

The Conservatives have identified three key areas where legislation is necessary: where there is a lack of information, a potential abuse of power, or a profit motive that could lead to "corners being cut".

Other mooted changes relate to aspects of public service such as the police, where explicit provision has been proposed to ensure that the police prioritise managing the risk to the public above the risk to individual officers, to avoid a stultification of a long-established culture of heroism. The corollary would appear to place a premium on effective training and support for officers. These factors would already be expected to be factored into risk assessments more generally.

Equally, it remains to be seen whether Lord Young will address the restrictions placed on the working hours of junior doctors – the Working Time Directive is an area where the Conservatives want to see change at national rather than EU level.

Lord Young has acknowledged the impact of no-win, no-fee claims. By harnessing the full power of advertising and appealing to the notion that someone must be to blame, the wrong message is being sent, and Lord Young envisages a ban on this form of television advertising. We have already seen restrictions placed on damages-based agreements in employment tribunals, where legal fees are capped at 35 per cent of the compensation recovered. Recommendations for further regulation of these fee arrangements should be anticipated.

Significantly, the Health and Safety Executive has welcomed this review, with the HSE chair agreeing that health and safety legislation has been "used by too many as a convenient excuse to hide behind". The HSE has been running its Myth of the Month campaign since 2007, hitting back at some of the ridiculous decisions that are wrongly blamed on health and safety.

The steady reduction in work-related injuries and fatalities over the past decade illustrate the impact of effective regulation and enforcement of health and safety by the HSE and will no doubt form an important backdrop to the review.

• Stephen Chaffey is a health and safety solicitor with Dundas & Wilson.