05 Jan H&S: Myths and Misconceptions
We asked our Associate company ‘Just Health and Safety’ to give us their view on the top myths and misconceptions that they come across. Here are the ones that they came up with:
1. Health and safety is a single entity
The world seems to be full if conspiracy theorists these days, and when talking to people about Health and Safety it often comes across as though it’s a definable entity, something we can ban or fight (a bit like the famous ‘war on terror’).
The reality is that ‘Health and Safety’ is a very wide concept encompassing the ‘duty of care’ which we all have to one another as well as the laws that apply. Thus, you hear people talking about health and safety of children’s play areas, of people playing rugby in a park, of firemen rescuing people from burning buildings, of looking after vulnerable people in our society etc. – all very different scenarios with different standards applying in each case.
Rather than get bogged down in this, for us there is something that clearly distinguishes situations and that’s employment. If you’re employing someone else to do a job, then to a small or large extent you the employer should be reasonably careful not to set up any of your employees so that they are seriously injured or develop serious ill-health.
2. ‘Health and safety isn’t needed – people should just use ‘common sense’’
Common sense is a term mainly reserved for those looking on with 20:20 vision after an accident who want to feel superior ‘Ha! He didn’t use his common sense!’ (oh, how we laughed)
It can also be used whilst in the process of setting someone up to fail (e.g. by not providing the right equipment to do a job), usually said as a throw-away over-the-shoulder comment ‘Don’t worry – if all else fails, just use your common sense…’
For employers, all of whom have ‘vicarious liability ’ for the actions of their employees, it would be unforgivable, indeed risky to the business to try and rely on a populist catch-phrase to manage their affairs.
Common sense cannot be used as a defence in a court of law. It cannot heal those in hospital. It cannot replace injured staff. It cannot explain why intelligent staff get injured whilst simply trying to follow your orders, nor can it remove No-Win-No-Fee lawyers from your back.
3. ‘H&S people should just tell us what to do so we can get on with running our businesses’
For a start, you wouldn’t like it as we’d have to order your people about, buy stuff on your account etc. That aside, ‘what to do’ comes out of the process of carrying out risk assessments – after all, as a company, I’m sure you’d say you were unique – so by the same logic your systems, processes, staff competencies, equipment, risks are unique too, right?
So, it can never be ‘one-size-fits-all’ – the law has done you a favour by enabling you to write your own, tailored documents and systems matched to your own unique circumstances, and there’s plenty of guidance around to learn how to do this effectively.
4. H&S is about generating lots of paperwork
A lot of people seem to think this, and the root of the misunderstanding is our own ability to ‘game’ situations to our advantage.
For example, if you’re employing a contractor to do some work, and because it’s risky you’ve asked them to produce a risk assessment first – if it only has a few ill-chosen words on it, then it’s easy to see that it might not be a proper job.
However, if it drowns you in paperwork then this usually stops people from analysing it and finding out if there’s any sense or realism to the document – no-one has the time or inclination to do this.
So, both sides begin to see this as ‘the game’ to tick the H&S box, and after a while the blame for this view is reflected onto the amorphous ‘blob’ known as ‘Health and Safety’.
Everyone needs to fight this and produce meaningful, concise, well-presented paperwork that serves the purpose of communicating safe methods and messages between parties.
5. If we give our employees a long list of ‘Do’s and ‘Don’ts’ then it’s down to them if they get injured
This is something we see frequently, but the idea is just plain wrong. At the most basic level, you still have overall responsibility for the actions of your employees – you can’t just pass this over to them, you’re supposed to actively manage the work.
How? …by making instructions as simple as possible, checking for understanding, giving them safe systems to follow, safe equipment in a safe working environment, supervising those who may need it before they reliably adopt safe practices etc.
Issuing orders is only one part of managing people and you can’t turn a blind eye whilst your employees do their own thing.
6. People read, assimilate, and then follow detailed instructions given to them
This is one of the commonest myths in life, not just for Health and Safety.
Some of the time those writing instructions aren’t aware of the range of reading abilities that the documents will be seen by (after all, many people these days just ‘scan-read’ everything, then look up (none-the-wiser) and say ‘Yep, read it’. Sometimes the writer just doesn’t care enough, isn’t skilled in the use of language, and maybe often they just don’t have the time.
The key test, of course, is to ask someone to read what you’ve written, and then summarise the main points back to you without re-checking the document. Normally, people can only remember 3 or 4 points, but if it’s a safety instruction then you want those to be the ones that keep them safe.
7. H&S Laws keep changing
This myth may have come about out from those who wish to sell you their services – peddling fear of falling behind is a successful tactic.
If you are in a specific industry – say, chemical manufacture then standards will generally improve over time and you will certainly hear about it from targeted information sent to you by the enforcement agencies or trade bodies. However, the reality for the vast majority of businesses is that H&S laws don’t keep changing (it’s a good job, because many haven’t even started to comply with laws made 20 years ago!).
When someone takes their old car for its MOT they don’t expect it to fail because it lacks safety systems that would apply to a brand new one. Likewise, everyone should aim for achieving a basic level of safety compliance first – and the law isn’t prescriptive on how to do this (but there’s plenty of guidance about).
8. I don’t need to know about H&S – I just outsource it!
Tempting as this is, who exactly do you think will be in the dock if you have a serious accident? If you outsource it, then this is likely to be to someone who has taken on the role of giving you competent advice, and maybe carrying out some risk assessments for you – not fully managing your business. This is a valuable service, but it should be clear that no-one can take that responsibility away from you. H&S laws are built on the ‘employer-employee’ relationship and an external agency cannot assume your role as employer.
9. A proper risk assessment entails using a scoring system
Scoring systems are useful if you want to compare risks and decide which one you need to tackle first, but in our experience, they have become pseudo-science. When we concentrate too much on generating numbers we tend to spend less time generating concise, realistic ways of controlling the risks we’ve identified. Often, the scoring systems are appended with a ‘High/Medium/Low’ table which is supposed to direct our actions after deciding on the scores – mostly, this is ignored which defeats the whole object of using these systems.
There is no legal imperative for using a scoring system in a risk assessment.
10. Carrying out a risk assessment is easy-peasy
We would say that it takes some skill and knowledge and experience – and judging by the long list of advice from the HSE , it looks like they might agree with us. Risk assessing can be easy, but only if the risks are obvious and well controlled and you know how to set this out logically. However, many people find it difficult and there are some frequent mistakes we come across. These include: blatant copying documents (this can be embarrassing and is often obvious); specifying unrealistic controls; being too vague; being far too brief; blindly accepting risk without serious consideration (‘fingers crossed’ scenarios), and of course not collaborating with people who may have good ideas as to how to reduce risk (the workforce, maybe?).