When someone says, ‘health and safety’ how do you complete the well-known phrase or saying? I bet, like me, you tag on, ‘gone mad’ at the end. That’s hardly surprising when we are all bombarded with stories of children’s conker matches being banned, trees being felled in case someone trips over their roots and everything – from nuts to washing-up liquid – carrying warnings about the brain-atrophying obvious. It smacks of treating sensible people like sheep.
Personally, I think health and safety gets a bad name – but then again, I would, as I represent, at the Association for Project Safety, a national organisation of risk management specialists.
Too often, in busy lives, health and safety is simply the quickest off-the-shelf solution to getting you out of something you just don’t want to do. A ready-made excuse to pull out of the bag when it’s too difficult to find a way around process, paperwork or any other problem that gets in the way.
I’m not saying there are not times when caution is the right approach. People are, for example, naturally – and rightly – careful when they are responsible for other people’s children. That means risk assessments and forms to fill in.
Maybe that all seems a bit cumbersome and over-the-top but, like liquids in tiny bottles and plastic bags at airports, the inconvenience is seen to be outweighed by the greater good.
There are risks everywhere we turn. And there’s the paradox. There’s a thing called optimism bias that makes us believe the bad things we know can happen are less likely to happen to us. I suppose it helps us get on planes [or jumping out of them, as my friend Laura Hardie is doing for the Sick Kids Charity] or taking-up extreme sports or eating oysters. It maybe prevents us being shackled by our fears.
However, for everyday life, we need something a bit more than luck. There needs to be a protocol for taking sensible precautions and proportionate measures.
When it comes to construction there’s a need to balance building more, faster and more cost effectively with making sure things are safe. The professionals I represent are experts in design and construction health and safety risk management.
They work, day in day out, to ensure risks are identified and managed and everyone is kept in the loop. They advise on asbestos or the need for scaffolding. They know about carrying heavy loads without breaking your back or driving dumper trucks on construction sites. They use old-fashioned common sense and state of the art technology to model all the things that can go wrong – and then set out to prevent it happening.
But still people don’t take a telling. The flow of construction workers falling off roofs or inhaling evil, life-limiting dust may have slowed down but, anyone who looks at prosecutions by the Health and Safety Executive [HSE] can tell you, the tap hasn’t been turned off. Corners are cut in ignorance or in the name of economy and it is very rare that the true cost of safety is properly factored in when too many firms are scrabbling for too few contracts.
But the consequences get you a Grenfell.
The snappily titled Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 were an attempt to square the magic circle of cutting costs, stripping out red tape and improving safety. The regulations should be like a good bra – improving and supporting in all the right places, firm but light-touch. But it’s fair to say they may not have been wholly successful and the shift from a checklist approach to getting practitioners to assess risk on a case-by-case basis has been challenging.
The promised five-year review is looming on the horizon so it is time to consider what has worked well and what could be improved. Alongside that we all need to recognise that the world in which the regulations operate is now a very different place. Brexit will make a big difference, not least as pressure will mount when fewer workers have to carry the load. Tragedies – like Grenfell; scandals – like problems with Scottish schools; and legal rulings – such as liability for mesothelioma have changed the game – and rightly so.
We need to get it right. Health and safety has become shorthand for interfering, supercilious political correctness. In the hands of the harassed and unsure it can descend into a kind of over-protective idiocy. But, done right – and put simply – health and safety saves lives.
Lesley McLeod, CEO, Association for Project Safety.