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Page last updated at 10:06 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 11:06 UK
Britain's zeal for health & safety

By Quentin Letts

Quentin Letts
Quentin Letts argues that Britons are overloaded with danger warnings

Quentin Letts leads Panorama's examination of health and safety guidelines, rules and regulations in Britain and asks if common sense has been replaced with an overzealous approach to eliminating the very notion of risk.

Widow Mavis Field was intending to trim the grass round her first husband's grave when she received a terrible shock. As she approached the grave in Worksop, Nottinghamshire, she found that it had been speared by a long wooden stake. Its carved headstone had been strapped by heavy-duty bindings and a garish, yellow sticker had been slapped alongside. "WARNING!" it read. "This Memorial is Unsafe. Should not be tampered with. Essential maintenance required."

Mrs Field, who says she "shed a tear or two" that day, is one of thousands of bereaved Britons trampled underfoot by our increasingly controversial Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Her husband's grave had been "tampered with" by the local council, acting on HSE advice about safety in municipal graveyards.

I am as aware as you about people accusing us of banning conkers, pancakes, cheese rolling, the list is endless. That's not what we are about
Judith Hackitt, Chair, Heath and Safety Executive

The end result is that the Worksop cemetery looks like something from a Dracula film, row upon row of tombstones desecrated by council-ordered stakes.

I met Mrs Field while making a Panorama documentary, May Contain Nuts... , about our health and safety culture - one that some say has "gone mad". Is this accusation fair? Or is health and safety an important guard against the industrial deaths which used to blight our country?

The parliamentary debates which preceded the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act that created the HSE reveal MPs concerned mainly with heavy industry such as coal mining and pharmaceuticals. Safety measures should be introduced, it says time and time again "where reasonably practicable".

'Nut toppings banned'

In making this programme, we looked at some of the notorious press stories about health and safety and found that many turned out to not be true. Ice cream nut toppings have not been "banned by health and safety" as was reported - there was a theory that they fell to the floor of ice cream parlours and might send people falling like skittles. Tales of a blanket, government enforced ban on "killer floral hanging baskets" from village streets by "safety killjoys" were equally far-fetched.

Hanging basket

But there was nothing fictitious about cemeteries such as the one at Worksop, where "topple-testing" is still conducted in earnest.

Those which wobble under the "topple-test" are staked, strapped and sometimes completely flattened.

The HSE, citing some "over the top" interpretations of its guidance, has since withdrawn its original advice, but that has not stopped councils - fearful of legal action - persisting with the practice.

Former Times editor Sir Simon Jenkins is chairman of the National Trust, whose parks and country houses offer strategically placed warning signs where deemed necessary. They resist, he says, the idea of fencing off every potential danger zone.

"Victims of an accident nowadays have it somehow hardwired into them that someone must be at fault," Sir Simon told us. "They've got used to the thought that there might be some money in it. The combination of this concept of fault, blame and money is toxic."

Sir Simon said the concept of common sense has vanished. It has been replaced, he added, by an army of people in the business of over-assessing risk and profiting from the very health and safety advice that they offer.

Real risks

There is, in turn, the fear that petty health and safety rulings risk bringing into disrepute legitimate measures. At major construction sites, heavy equipment and long drops make precautions vital.

Six people a month still die on construction sites in Britain. While making this programme, I interviewed Barbara and Bernard Burke, whose son Steven, a 17 year-old karate champion, died while working in a 60-foot high sewerage tank. The inspector who visited that job site before the accident was not qualified to work in a confined space.

Union leader Alan Ritchie pointed out that his industry has the highest number of deaths, yet in recent years the HSE has failed to maintain the numbers of its inspection teams.

Judith Hackitt, chair of the HSE, told Panorama that while the number of workplace inspections had declined in recent years, owing to staff fluctuations, that number is now back on target.

"The number went down slightly two or three years ago but as of this month it is back up to the number we want it to be," she said, citing a "significant recruitment campaign" that will see the number of inspectors rise to 1,300 by the end of March.

'Danger' everywhere

Mrs Hackitt said the body's aim is to provide guidance based on common sense with a focus on high risk workplaces. She added that ultimately, it is up to employers, not the HSE, to ensure their workplaces are safe and their staff suitably trained to do the job they are assigned.

Building site
Building site accidents claim victims on a weekly basis in Britain

She said the thrust of the organisation - to ensure workplace safety - is lost amid stories of misinterpretation.

"I am as aware as you about people accusing us of banning conkers, pancakes, cheese rolling, the list is endless. That's not what we are about. We are talking about people getting killed and injured in work."

In the case of grave topple-testing, she said the guidance was issued after a series of fatalities linked to loose gravestones.

"What we circulated was what we thought was common sense guidance but, again, what we saw happen was an over-interpretation of that."

Warning signs are everywhere on our streets today. There are signs saying 'do not fall', 'men working overhead', 'danger', 'danger of slipping', 'caution'.

It begs the question, the more we are lectured about questionable hazards, is there a chance that we are less likely to listen to genuinely important safety advice?

No one argues that safety at work has a legitimate role and industrial deaths must be kept to a minimum. But there's a deal to be done here. Unless we resist pointless meddling, unless we start taking more responsibility for ourselves, safety will become a joke. A truly dangerous joke.

Panorama: May Contain Nuts... is on BBC One Monday, 20 April at 8.30 pm.



SEE ALSO
May Contain Nuts...
Friday, 17 April 2009, 13:45 GMT |  Panorama
Safety fears over hanging baskets
Thursday, 9 April 2009, 10:24 GMT |  North east
Are crash tributes a safety hazard?
Thursday, 2 April 2009, 08:50 GMT |  England
Building firms get safety warning
Tuesday, 10 March 2009, 09:21 GMT |  Tyne
Conkers get safety group backing
Friday, 26 September 2008, 11:28 GMT |  UK

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