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13:45 GMT, Friday, 17 April 2009 14:45 UK

May Contain Nuts...

staked gravestone

Health and safety rules and regulations sound, on the surface, to be the most noble of aims for a government agency. They were meant to reduce horrific injuries and death in the workplace by creating a set of legally enforceable minimum standards.

But have rules that are meant to keep us us safe at work overstepped their mandate? In May Contain Nuts... Panorama takes a closer look at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and explores some of the more mystifying applications of the 'guidance' being offered by government.

Quentin Letts busts a few myths, shares his knowledge after a one-day course on how to use a ladder and tells us that the real workplace risks lie - perhaps not surprisingly - at the thousands of building sites across the UK.

Along the way, he has a peek behind the juicy headlines to debunk some of the urban myths.

No, he finds, there is no rule banning the sale of ice cream toppings out of fear employees might slip on scattered 'hundreds and thousands'.

Nor was there an order to remove hanging baskets from the streets of a pretty English village over fears that they might tumble to earth and hurt a passerby.

Grave 'topple-testers'

But some prove true.

Yes, there are teams of specially-trained 'topple-testers' employed by councils across the UK to ensure that gravestones in local cemeteries are not too easily toppled.

donkey rides

Those that fail are staked, taped and warning signs are placed around them.

Freedom of Information documents reveal that 118 councils admitted to topple testing in the last two years at a cost of more than £1.65m.

This, despite the fact that the HSE withdrew its guidance amid fears that councils were misinterpreting their advice and going "over the top" in their reaction to it.

Then there is the Noise at Work Act which states that employers must provide hearing protection when workplace noise measured at 85 decibels averaged over a working day or week.

Just how loud is that? Researchers tell us it is the sound of loud conversation or heavy traffic.

Quentin's decibel reader finds that standing in Piccadilly Circus exceeds the recommended decibel levels, as does a trip to many of the West End's famous theatres.

Alex Walden, Manager of the BBC Concert Orchestra, said the regulations, if applied to musicians, would dictate the musical repertoire on offer.

Shostakovich silenced

"If 85 decibels is enforced to us, and I can't imagine that any orchestra could really truly function by sticking to that level if it's a daily exposure average, we'll be reduced to playing quiet Mozart all the time.

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goggles for conkers

"You won't be able to play any Mahler, Beethoven, Shostakovich or any of that stuff at all because it is just so loud."

The HSE tells of their work with the Musicians' Union to come up "some common sense pragmatic advice, not developed by us in isolation but which we worked with the music industry".

The programme traces the rise of the "no win, no fee" culture of litigation since it was first permitted a decade ago, complete with allowing lawyers to advertise their services to accident victims.

It is a trend that Edward Faulks, QC, tells Panorama that many lawyers wish were outlawed.

"I think most lawyers are embarrassed about it," he says. "There's a sort of vulgarisation of the whole approach to claims."

Quentin embarks on a one-day 'ladder awareness' course in Hornchurch, Essex.

"I have just done the morning session, a theory exam, done rather badly, but I think I have passed and now the afternoon is going to be given to the practical lessons, learning how to climb ladders - how to work on them, how to take things up them, how to fix them to the ground - and generally how to live with the ladders."

At a cost of £230 for a day of ladder safety, he explains the impact of the myriad of HSE advisories on small business owners and how what began life as a three-page directive, somehow ballooned to 27 pages.

Too late for some

Quentin learns of the stark need for accident prevention measures when he meets union leader Alan Ritchie at a London building site to talk about the daily risks faced by construction workers.

cranes on building site

"Every month we are losing six people getting killed on a construction site and the Health and Safety Executive are saying that over 70% of these deaths could have been avoided by the proper implementation of the health and safety at work act," Mr Ritchie says.

Judith Hackitt, chair of the HSE, sheds more light on the extent of the problem.

"Last year 230 people died in incidents at work. There were over 28,000 suffered serious injuries as a result of work."

Mrs Hackitt said that while there has been a consistent improvement in Britain in health and safety over the past 30 years, that trend has flattened in recent years.

"And that's why we are looking at new ways to stimulate improvement."

Quentin visits with the family of 17-year-old Steven Burke, for whom any improvements to health and safety measures will come too late.

Steven died after he fell 60-feet off scaffolding inside a sewerage tank that he was tasked with cleaning. Paradoxically the health inspector who had come to check the site was not able to get inside the tank because he was not properly trained for being in a confined space.

Steven Burke, 17

Steven should not have even been inside the tank, regulations required him to be 21 to undertake that job.

Mr Ritchie says more inspectors are needed and a stronger focus should be applied where the risks are greatest - industrial settings.

"The main issue has got to be that people are being killed every week and being injured. That's where health and safety have really to concentrate on."

The HSE's Judith Hackitt says that while they have increased the number of on-the-ground inspectors, the end responsibility for a safe workplace - including ensuring staff are trained and knowledgeable - lies with employers.

Quentin worries that the spirit of the original legislation that created the HSE is being lost amid a sea of safety warnings, danger signs and paperwork.

The original bill called for improved safety measures to be taken where "reasonably practicable" - a proviso that he finds has been misplaced along the way by many of those charged with implementing the HSE's guidelines.

He also questions whether the daily onslaught of caveats in everyday life could make people increasingly immune to real dangers in their workplaces.

"But there's a deal to be done here," he says. "Unless we resist pointless meddling, unless we start taking more responsibility, safety will continue to be a joke. A dangerous joke."

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

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Your comments: May Contain Nuts... (Tuesday, 4 August 2009, 12:17 GMT |  Panorama )
Health and Safety Executive responds (Wednesday, 29 April 2009, 09:34 GMT |  Panorama )
Britain's zeal for health & safety (Friday, 17 April 2009, 10:06 GMT |  Panorama )
Laws 'won't stop work accidents' (Tuesday, 23 September 2008, 23:49 GMT |  Glasgow, Lanarkshire and West )
Oven gloves off over charity bake (Thursday, 13 November 2008, 16:46 GMT |  Bristol )
Gravestones are tested for safety (Tuesday, 8 January 2008, 09:59 GMT |  Gloucestershire )

Health & Safety Executive
Royal Society for Prevention of Accidents

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