Health and safety

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It's the
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To punish
and protect

Health and safety is a blanket term referring to legislation designed to promote and protect the general well-being of people.[1] It is a much maligned and abused term, having been associated with the idea of meddling or overbearing government regulation by anti-government journalists.

Risk awareness vs legal arse-covering[edit]

Health and safety tends to be practiced in one of two ways, although they're not a mutually exclusive set of categories. The first is actual risk awareness and management designed to save lives and prevent unnecessary injury; the second way is a form of legal box-ticking to try and avoid being sued if something goes wrong. Naturally, the former is the aim, but the main problem occurs when people confuse the two "types"; mistaking genuine health-and-safety practice for uncalled-for meddling, and thinking that filling out a table marked "risk assessment" guarantees that nothing bad will happen.

Risk management[edit]

Here's the fact: proper risk management saves lives and prevents injury. This isn't because filling in a risk assessment is magical, but because the biggest problem faced by health and safety is complacency. Taking the time to think about an activity not only lets people identify perceived hazards and deal with them in advance, but also lets them remember procedures designed to prevent known hazards. Familiarisation with established protocol prior to doing something with potential dangers brings knowledge and information on dealing with it to the forefront of someone's mind; so they can react better and faster if something does go wrong, without panicking trying to remember it. People who treat risk-assessments as just boxes to tick won't get this benefit, and those who treat them as an unnecessary affront to their personal freedom will have even less of an idea what to do in an emergency.

Despite most health and safety regulations being put in place to prevent actual hazards or health threats, they are unwisely ignored by thousands of otherwise sensible people on a daily basis. This is due to the somewhat trivial ("What's the harm of locking this door, I don't understand?") or 'unlikely' nature of many of them ("A fire could never start in my apartment, let me drape this cloth on my lamp!") or their perceived impediment to personal freedom ("I hate smoke detectors! It's my apartment and I can do whatever I want to!"). Naturally, risk awareness isn't going to prevent black swan type events, but it does lower the incidence of known hazards and, when done properly, leaves people better equipped to deal with the unknown unknowns when they do occurs.

The Safety Elf and the Nanny State[edit]

Risk assessment, however tedious and time-consuming, is a necessary evil. The problem with politicians sounding off is that they seem to think there was some golden age in schools when children had terrific adventures and took breathtaking risks which formed their character. I contend that it never existed. I do recall a steady stream of broken heads and limbs of children who had fallen off old and dangerous schoolyard climbing equipment.
—Shaun Halfpenny, headmaster[2]

"'Elf and Safety" is a term, usually used in conjunction with "gone mad," cited by newspapers of a certain persuasion, to describe things totally contrary to "common sense". Most people in the reality-based community, however, will be familiar with the fact that common sense tends to have two properties: it's not that common, and it rarely makes sense. "Common sense" would tell us to grab the nearest fire extinguisher if there's a fire — but that would make the situation worse if you didn't know how to use one and blasted a beaker of flammable liquid with the full force of a CO2 extinguisher.

For the most part, the "Elf and Safety" accusation is often accompanied with another slang term; the "nanny state". This refers to perceived excessive meddling of the state in people's lives, although it's not just restricted to H&S legislation, but also covers a wider range of laws and restrictions. Rather than H&S legislation being evidence for a meddling state, however, it's usually used to shoehorn the concept of a meddling state into a news story as the journalist in question probably already holds some anti-government view. Because of this, newspapers can be overly keen to jump onto any story as further proof of the nanny state, such as when it was widely reported in 2004 that pupils in a British school were told to wear goggles while playing conkers.[3] David Cameron went so far as to highlight the goggle-wearing story in 2009 as a sign that "something has gone seriously wrong with the spirit of health and safety in the past decade".[4] The story was revealed to be some sort of parody or hoax by a single headmaster,[2] who suggested that Cameron was merely trying to curry favour with Daily Mail readers.

The 'Elf 'n Safety' description is used whenever a new law or regulation is reported that prevents people from doing something fun because it also happens to be dangerous. On most occasions, the story reported is a straw man argument and a misrepresentation of what happened. The UK Health and Safety Executive, for example, maintains a steady supply of myths and health and safety debunking on its website.[5]

When Brian Cox and Dara O Brian were filming Stargazing Live for the BBC, they were explicitly forbidden from pointing the Jodrell Bank telescope at the planet Threapleton Holmes B, discovered on the show, in case they found signs of life on it and announced this live on television. Cox said "You mean we would discover the first hint that there is other intelligent life in the universe beyond Earth, live on air, and you're worried about the health and safety of it? It was incredible. They did have guidelines. Compliance!" The BBC described these hypothetical discussions as "light hearted conversations" rather than a health and safety concern.[6]

How to Health and Safety[edit]

Here is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to Proper F****ng Health and F*****g Safety, compiled by experts.

  • Analyse your activity and work area in advance to spot potential hazards before they cause a problem. Take appropriate responsible action.
  • Wait until someone dies to fix it.

  • Listen to the concerns of people doing the work and those with experience.

  • Weigh up your hazard priorities based on how severe a hazard is compared to how likely it is to occur. Minor incidents that happen frequently are as important as major incidents that are rare.
  • Make the mistake of thinking that because an alien invasion or nuclear explosion will result in the death of everybody that it counts as the biggest hazard.

  • Consider your most general hazards so you can respond efficiently to a multitude of problems — e.g., first aid training, stocked and maintained first-aid kits.
  • Fixate on only one single event and divert 95% of your attention and resources to making sure it will never happen — and certainly don't interpret a lack of this event as a sign of success.

  • Use reputable professionals with a good safety track record when contracting.
  • Think that the wrist strap will solve all your problems.

  • Use common sense.