How businesses hide behind health and safety myths
Pricewatch: Some firms use ‘health and safety’ concerns as an excuse to get out of doing things
The HSE regularly publishes lists of ‘blatant examples’ where organisations have hidden behind health and safety in order to refuse service or justify a decision.
If you were to believe all you read and hear you could be forgiven for thinking that the State, and more specifically the agency charged with maintaining health and safety across the land, were the ultimate fun police.
“Health and safety regulations”, we are told, mean fans can’t run on to football pitches to celebrate their teams’ triumphs. They are behind nightclubs banning certain types of dancing and responsible for restaurants being unable to microwave an infant child’s home-cooked stew or a tea drinker being forbidden from using their own cup on a train.
Want to bring a bicycle on a ferry? No can do; health and safety says no. Even the banning of flower deliveries to hospitals has been blamed on health and safety rules.
While hearing such stories might make the casual observer throw their eyes to the heavens and go about their day, Gavin Lonergan is no casual observer. He works with the Health and Safety Authority (HSA), a body that deals with serious and frequently life-and-death issues. Like many of his colleagues he is endlessly dismayed by how frequently companies and service providers use the health and safety clause to get out of doing things they don’t want to do..
“The laissez-faire use of ‘health and safety’ to prohibit, limit or ban certain activities altogether gives the serious role of occupational health and safety professionals a bad name and, unsurprisingly, can lead to general cynicism,” he says.
“We would certainly be concerned that serious health and safety matters could be trivialised and not taken seriously the more we see of these seemingly frivolous examples.”
Lonergan says the HSA has “no role in connection with companies deciding customers can’t have teabags in their own cups or saying children can’t play in playgrounds. So much of the stuff that you hear about is completely outside of our remit. We focus on occupational safety and the legislation we operate under is not about preventing people from doing things but making sure that people are safe at work.”
He stresses that the HSA deals with very big issues. “People can get killed on building sites or in other locations if there are breaches in health and safety rules and what we are doing is a very serious thing and when you see this silly stuff cropping up it can take away from the importance of that work.”
He says that too frequently companies using “health and safety” as a reason not to do things are doing so because what they want to do is either protect their revenue streams or protect themselves from legal difficulties that might arise should something bad happen to a person using their service or property.
“There is no legislation preventing people running on to a football pitch but the authorities might want stop it because they deem there to be a risk to some people if it is allowed. So the easiest thing is to ban it.”
But, as Lonergan says, “you can’t remove risk entirely”.
He points out that if we were serious about trying to do that we would “never leave our houses and there would never be a building site allowed to operate in this country again. What we trying to do in the workplace is to manage that risk.”
He has a long list of examples of the misuse of the phrase “health and safety”. He cites the example of a ferry operator off the Irish coast which told tourists they could no longer bring bikes on board over health and safety concerns and the fear that somebody might trip over one of the bicycles. It may or may not have been coincidental that there was a bicycle rental company on the island where the boat was going that was concerned it was losing a big chunk of business when tourists came with their own bikes.
He also questions why some companies cite health and safety concerns as the reason why they must limit family tickets to two adults and two children. “There are no health and safety issues whatsoever with more than two children being added to a family ticket and certainly no legislation preventing it but it might suit a businesses to restrict to families that and use health and safety legislation as a smokescreen.”
Of course, Ireland is not alone when dealing with this issue.
While our Health Service Executive is perhaps the most opaque organisation it the State the HSE in the UK is quite a different beast. The three letters in that jurisdiction stand for the Health and Safety Executive; it is the HSA’s counterpart. One of the things it has been celebrated for in recent years is its so-called myth-busting panel.
One campsite refused to provide freezer facilities to campers for refreezing thawed ice packs
The panel was set up by its former head Judith Hackitt, who did so out of concern that everything about health and safety in the media had become a joke because companies and state organisations were using the catch-all phrase to stop people doing certain things such as playing in playgrounds or not putting plastic lids on hot drinks.
Speaking to the Financial Times ahead of her retirement she also talked about overprotection from risk. “A lot of myths are about things children are prevented from doing,” she said. “If we don’t educate children to deal with risk, they will expect someone else to do it for them for the rest of their lives.”
The HSE regularly publishes lists of “blatant examples” where organisations have hidden behind health and safety in order to refuse service or justify a decision.
Among the things it has highlighted in the recent past was a retailer who told a consumer it was unable to accept the return of any dirty boots due to health at safety concerns. There were multiple examples of restaurants and cafes refusing to heat baby food for customers, while a steward on an aircraft said they could not give a passenger a blanket unless she bought one for – you guessed it – health and safety reasons
While Hackitt retired in 2016, the work of the myth-busters panel goes on. Last year it highlighted a nightclub’s ban on head-banging. When asked to assess the risks, the panel said that although “there is some limited evidence that head-banging may not be good for your health, there is no specific H&S regulation which bans this activity. The nightclub would perhaps have been better served to advise their customers of that, rather than imposing a blanket ban and blaming H&S.”
It also highlighted a campsite which on health and safety grounds refused to provide freezer facilities to campers for refreezing thawed ice packs. “This was a health and safety myth,” the panel said. “There are no health and safety concerns that prevent the freezing of ice packs. Health and safety at work legislation does not prohibit the refreezing of ice packs. The customer should have been told that this facility was not available due to the limited space within the freezer.”
The HSA, meanwhile, has a list of myths on its website too. One of those myths is that “so many things get banned because of health and safety. It’s the nanny state gone mad!” The truth is quite different, the website explains. “The position of the Health and Safety Authority is clear – health and safety is not a reason to not do something. If there are valid risks associated with a workplace activity these risks should be assessed and managed so that the activity can be carried out in a safe way. Very rarely is the solution to simply not do it.”