April 24, 2013 1 Comment
Tuning into the 10 o’clock news last night to marvel at how a businessman could sell millions of pounds of bogus bomb detectors to strife torn countries around the world, I lingered through the weather and thus stumbled upon the first episode of Ben Elton’s new comedy, The Wright Way. It takes a lot to wind me up but this supposed ‘comedy’ about an anal Health & Safety official did just that.
Has it really come to this – that a champion of 1980s leftist alternative comedy, and writer of landmark subtle and inventive shows like The Young Ones and Black Adder – is now hawking sub Daily Mail rants against health & safety?
In his 1980s and 1990s stand-up routines Elton was always attentively PC (sometimes self policing and pulling punches in scrupulously observed ‘no-go’ areas). I’m sure that this latest offering doesn’t represent a complete about face. Positive nods (albeit token and wooden) were there to Lesbianism and female plumbers for instance. But the whole premise of the show was that health & safety is bad and that anyone in that role a) has an abundance of power b) gets a kick from wielding it and stopping things from happening and c) represents a whole sphere of bureaucratic endeavour that serves no positive purpose whatsoever.
How on earth did we get here?
Growing up in the 1980s my history lessons where full of (a rather tired and past its prime) Whiggish reading of recent English History as progress towards social justice. We learnt about the horrors of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of the Factory Acts and the steps taken by factory owners to resist the abolition of slavery and restriction of the length of the working day, the employment of children and the fitting of guards to factory machinery. The ascendancy of controls over the maiming potential of untrammelled free enterprise and its machinery was lauded as an unquestioned ‘good’ and the Trades Unions extolled occupational heath and safety legislation as a major success of the labour movement.
Yet now, the figure of the health and safety official (replete with clipboard and check-list) is lampooned by Left and Right alike without challenge. This is dangerous stuff.
Yes, there are problems in the way that principles of safety law have migrated (and mutated) beyond the confines of the factory walls. But danger doesn’t stop at the factory door and neither does the industrial/commercial management of space. The Offices, Shops & Railways Premises Act 1963 – as its name suggests – was an early acknowledgment that people and things interact in places other than manufactories. Should these places and activities within them not also be shaped by safety (and hygiene) focussed standards?
Then in late 1960s Lord Robens (smarting from experience as head of the National Coal Board at the time of the Aberfan disaster) was appointed (as mea culpa?) to devise a more flexible, lean and less prescriptive, approach to heath & safety – acknowledging the ever greater variety of activities and places that people and things congregate in. The Robens Report gave us the Health & Safety at Work Act 1974, and the core principles that still subsist today.
What Elton may or may not realise, is that in joining in the health & safety bashing he is facilitating a deregulation agenda that has been high on the Right wing wish-list for many years. Neo-liberal ideologues would love to strip out much of the heart of regulatory law (whether environmental, equal opportunities, wage control etc) in the name of enterprise (i.e. cost reduction). The anti health & safety (seeming) consensus in popular culture is a potential bridgehead for this.
In a study that I did back in 2008 I was able to chart the close association between this deregulationist agenda, the ‘pro-adventure’ outdoor recreation campaigners and New Labour. That trend only accelerated with the arrival of the credit crunch and the new coalition government, with Lord Young appointed in 2009 to (in the words of Prime Minister David Cameron) improve the poor standing of health & safety in the public’s eyes by reducing the regulatory creep and thereby aiding “businesses …drowned in red tape, confusion and the fear of being sued for even minor accidents.”
But the compensation culture is a myth not borne out by the claims data, and confusion is a product of how we think about safety and risk assessment, not inevitable products of the current system. It is not the law that is requiring this urge to inaction. Rather it is the way in which the system is regarded, understood and implemented by the people and organisations to which this self-policing is delegated. And, perhaps inevitably – but certainly not helped by vitriol and lampooning of Elton’s kind – becomes a caricature of itself, as the Health & Safety Executive are often keen to point out in their attempts to debunk whatever myth is circulating by way of local or trade-sectoral interpretation of what this system of principles requires (see http://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/).
Yes, ‘health & safety’ can be a dead-hand mantra, a retarding anti-action force, an excuse for inaction. Yes, health & safety departments appear to attract a certain mindset (systems driven – reflecting the mechanical engineering origins of many practitioners) but as David Ball’s work has shown and argued, there is nothing inherent within the system of health & safety law itself that is damaging to (non-maiming) spirit of enterprise, a culture of doing or even of risk taking. The beauty of the system introduced in 1974 is that it encourages self regulation (rather than prescribing precisely how each and every type of machine and event should be rendered safe). But, it is precisely this delegation that facilitates mutant effects. It does appear that marking out each worker or manager as ‘responsible’ for assessing and addressing the risk inherent in their activities can lead to a culture of caution, and – at times – over reaction, particularly where organisations see health & safety as self-contained, rather than as part of a supported holistic process of weighing up costs and benefits of the what they decide to do and not to do.
Ball advocates an embrace of the notion of risk-benefit assessment, particularly in safety-beyond-the-factory-wall. There is nothing in the legal principles to disallow adventurous pursuits. But there seems to be plently at implementational / interpretative level that creates this effect. This is where the work needs to be done. And it is work that needs to be done in the spirit of fine tuning, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater and tumbling back into the (mythical) laissez faire era of the early days of the Industrial Revolution.
The deregulationists have to date been largely unsuccessful in their attempts to purge the statute book of ‘health & safety red tape’. Indeed the Löftsted review – appointed by the present government to tackle the ‘problem’ – found little that was ripe for repeal. It would be a grave pity were the grumpy old men of ‘alternative’ comedy to fan the flames of this agenda.
Ball, D. & Ball-King, L. (2011) Public Safety and Risk Assessment – Improving decision making, Routledge: London
Bennett, L. & Crowe, L (2008) Landowners’ liability? is perception of the risk of liability for visitors accidents a barrier to countryside access? Countryside Recreation Network: Sheffield http://shura.shu.ac.uk/678/1/fulltext.pdf
Lord Young (2010) Common Sense, Common Safety , HM Government: London http://www.number10.gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/402906_CommonSense_acc.pdf
Löftsted, R. (2011) Reclaiming Health & Safety For All: an independent review of health and safety legislation, Department of Work & Pensions: London: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/lofstedt-report.pdf