HSC tells health and safety pedants to "get a life"

Statement by Bill Callaghan, Chair of the Health and Safety Commission

I am sick and tired of hearing about petty health and safety stopping people doing worthwhile and enjoyable things, when at the same time others are suffering harm and even death due to poor management and complacency. That is why today we are launching a set of principles of sensible risk management.

The principles set out what we believe risk management should – and should not – be about. They are simple; they are common sense. To some they will no doubt be a statement of the blindingly obvious. Unfortunately they are clearly not obvious to everyone; if they were we wouldn’t keep hearing stories about people concentrating effort on trivial risks and unnecessary bureaucracy. And there would be far fewer injuries, cases of ill health and deaths caused by work.

Some of the ’ elfandsafety’ stories are just myths. There are also some instances where health and safety is used as a convenient and lazy excuse to justify unpopular decisions or cover up management failure. But our research shows that behind many of the stories, there is at least a grain of truth – someone really has made a stupid decision. Of course the untold story is that many organizations manage risks sensibly, responsibly and proportionately. We need more to join them.

We recognized early on that if we – the HSC and HSE – were to make sensible risk management a reality, we could not do it alone. I am delighted to say that we have the broadest possible support for this initiative – organizations representing employers, workers, insurers, lawyers, volunteers, health and safety professionals and many others have all contributed and supported our approach. At the risk of singling out one example, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health has been very supportive and has already produced a checklist that sets the principles in a practical workplace context for its members and others to adopt.

Publication of these principles is the start, not the end. On their own the principles are just words on a piece of paper; we must put actions in place to make them come to life. We have jumped the gun a little and already made a start. In July HSE published new guidance on risk assessment, including a simple step-by-step guide and example risk assessments to show how much is expected, how much is enough. The new guidance makes the point that risk assessment is not rocket science – it’s really about good planning. Our message to all organizations is: don’t overcomplicate things, keep your risk assessment fit for purpose, make it a living document and act on it. Risk management should be about practical steps to protect people, not paperwork for its own sake.

We will work with a wide range of partners to put practical actions behind every one of these principles. Over the coming months we want to hear from our partners what action they are taking. We also welcome comments on the principles themselves. You can contribute by going to our risk web pages at: www.hse.gov.uk/risk At the beginning of 2007 we shall publish the finalized principles, together with specific commitments to turn them into reality.

We must, and will, promote the sensible management of risks that protects people from real harm and suffering, but avoids bureaucratic back covering. My clear message is that if you are using health and safety to stop everyday activities – get a life and let others get on with theirs. But equally, if you think health and safety is a joke and that you can just ignore real risks, then try telling that to the families of the 212 workers who never went home at all last year. Sensible risk management is emphatically about saving lives, not stopping them.
Bill Callaghan
22nd August 2006