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You take a chance getting up in the morning, crossing the street or sticking your face in a fan.”
Frank Drebin, Police Squad

It has become accepted practice to roll our eyes at the mere mention of Health & Safety. We think of the infamous headlines about how Health & Safety has “gone too far”:

  • Children made to wear goggles to play conkers
  • Dodgem cars at Butlins banned from bumping
  • Kite flying banned on Bridlington beach
  • Royal British Legion stops giving pins with poppies

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) started a campaign called “Mythbusters” as a direct result of the constant criticism of their area of expertise and now maintains a web page which details some of the alleged Health & Safety issues they have resolved after being contacted by (no doubt astounded) members of the public. You really should go and have a look, there are some absolute crackers. My personal favourites so far are:

  • An optician removed the wheels from their eye test chair on health and safety grounds
  • A train manager, when delivering news of the train’s delay, stated they could not leave the on-train office to answer questions because of health and safety reasons.
  • A member of staff in a café refused to put sauce on the enquirers’ ice cream due to health and safety reasons.
  • A customer in a department store restaurant asked for a baguette to be cut in half but was told this was not possible as the store had removed all knives on the grounds of health and safety

Just like the decline of the High Street as we knew it and ever-increasing car insurance premiums, these examples suggest that “‘Elf ‘n’ Safety” is largely a phenomenon of our own making. Some of us (companies and individuals alike) use it as a spurious excuse not to do something rather than finding a way to assess and then mitigate the risks of an activity…

I’ve spent the vast majority of my career working in an office. The most dangerous substance I’ve ever handled is 20mls of Tipp-Ex. The closest I’ve come to a brush with serious injury was a member of staff I’d dismissed after a disciplinary hearing threatening to stab me outside afterwards (true story – thankfully he retracted the threat before I left the building otherwise I’d have been looking over my shoulder for a while!) However, going to work wasn’t always such a benign experience as it (mainly) is these days.

I’m sure you’ll be aware that the daddy legislation in the UK is still the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAWA). You know, the one which means we have those identikit (often pristine and un-written on) posters up around the office that are supposed to tell us who is responsible for our health and safety. In 1974, the year the HASAWA was introduced, there were 651 fatalities related to work. You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear this had fallen significantly to 95 in 2013. So assuming everything else remained the same, there are potentially 556 people still alive this year who might not have survived the 1974 workplace (a logical leap I know, but work with me). Reported non-fatal injuries to workers have reduced similarly impressively from 336,701 to 77,310.

Looker further afield for a point of comparison, the European standard for measuring such matters is the rather ominous “deaths per 100,000 workers” figure. Across Europe the 2010 figures show an average “Standardised incident rate” (that sounds so much less threatening) of 1.57 deaths per 100,000 workers. The place you really want to work is Slovakia with 0.37; then it’s the Netherlands (0.49) and next – the third safest place to work in Europe – the UK at 0.71. Where to avoid? Cyprus tops the list with 5.53. Romania are next with 4.61, then, somewhat surprisingly (to me anyway), Luxembourg at 4.22.

It’s not all good news for the UK though. Reported deaths from mesothelioma, a cancer that is most often caused by exposure to asbestos, have risen from 243 in 1974 to 2,291 in 2011. The total number of cases of stress, depression and anxiety are on the increase – 428,000 were reported in 2011/12 – although it is likely that increasing awareness and changing attitudes to work-related stress have contributed to this. According to the latest HSE information, 1.1 million people who worked during the previous year were suffering from an illness (long-standing as well as new cases) they believed was caused or made worse by their current or past work. 0.5 million of these were new conditions which started during the year. A further 0.7 million former workers (who last worked over 12 months ago) were suffering from an illness which was caused or made worse by their past work.

It’s clear from these sobering statistics that the workplace of the pre-HASAWA era is still having an effect on our health – and we haven’t yet cracked many current workplace health issues. I wonder what the future health impact of today’s workplace and working practices will be – and what would it be like if we didn’t have our much-maligned Health & Safety enforcement structures?


  • The Health & Safety Executive Annual Statistics Report 2012/13 – The Health & Safety Executive
  • “Historical picture – Trends in work-related injuries and ill health in Great Britain since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974” – National Statistics
  • Eurostat data on fatal accidents at work

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