Lesley McLeod: Yes, I know you hate being told what to do – but safety rules stop deaths

Stop treating health and safety as a joke ' three people a month die on the UK's construction sites
Stop treating health and safety as a joke ' three people a month die on the UK's construction sites
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I read horror stories every day. Everyday tales of death and destruction, mutilation, blood and severed limbs. But, even though it may be seasonal, it’s not a love of the ghoulish and gothic that keeps me page-turning. It’s work.

Each week the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publicly shames firms and individuals found guilty of grievous contraventions of laws and regulations designed to keep ­people safe.

Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, The Association for Project Safety

Lesley McLeod, Chief Executive, The Association for Project Safety

These range from criminal cupidity, making you wonder how people sleep at night, to the diabolically ­idiotic that makes you doubt Darwinian evolution. Anything from a man dying of burns because he was using a blow-torch in a poorly ventilated and confined space to someone ­falling through a roof when dealing with a dead mouse in a cheese ­factory. The accidents can be criminal or ­comical, but the results are always catastrophic for the individual and often for their families too.

As a result, the penalties and costs can – and should – be eye-watering. Yet, still, around three people a month die on the UK’s construction sites and every single one could have been prevented if the rules had been followed.

Now, I am well aware people tend not to like rules and many think health and safety is a joke designed by well-meaning do-gooders with no sense of proportion or humour. I know. I hate to be to told what to do and will go to creative lengths to circumvent and bend, if not outright break, any rule that gets in my way.

I don’t like to be told to do what I know I ought to do. I feel my teeth grinding at the very thought that I should be thwarted in smoking or binge-drinking or eating chocolate for breakfast – even though, mostly, I don’t anyway. So, why don’t we just do as we’re told?

I suppose there is something about convenience. If it is difficult, awkward or time-consuming there is less chance we’ll comply. Consider our municipal green spaces (while we still have them). We must all have committed PPA – park path avoidance – when the walkway didn’t take the most direct route or go the way we wanted. They instantly become the road less travelled.

This observation is at the heart of nudge theory where understanding human nature and behaviour is used to “encourage” us to we do the right thing.

It can be anything from drink-driving to turning down the thermostat on the central heating. It’s been used, whether successfully or not, from everything from public health ­campaigns to, more controversially, the Brexit referendum and the US elections. Key to it is that you believe that what someone else wants you to do was your idea in the first place.

It was part of a presentation that members of the Association for Project Safety (APS) – the design and construction health and safety risk management experts I ­represent – heard at our recent conference.

The HSE has been poking about at the numbers and found, of those deaths and injuries I mentioned, the bulk were either sub-contractors or guys – and it is still mainly men – employed at the smaller end of the SMEs engaged in construction. There is research going on to find out just why they don’t keep to the rules and what messages might get them to wake up and listen.

I am all for saving lives and preventing long-term ill-health that robs ­people of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but I must admit to being queasy about how we encourage people to help themselves. In an ideal world we’d all take responsibility for our own safety, health or finances. We wouldn’t need the nanny state or Big Brother to police our behaviour. But that presupposes that we both know what to do and haven’t taken an ill-will to doing it – or the person telling us all about it.

The only reason nudging is necessary, is that the average punter has fallen so far out of love with authority – be that government or the army of experts we are attacked by, every time we switch on the telly – effectively, we want the whole lot to shut up and leave us alone.

The paradox of populism is that instead of spreading goodwill and common sense we are breeding ­contempt. Trump and Corbyn are a reaction to the Camerons and Milibands who wanted, I’ve actually no doubt, the best for us all but whose very preaching closed our ears to sound thinking and truth.

Lesley McLeod, chief executive, ­Association for Project Safety.