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Health and Safety - Drop the Toxic Brand?

28th July 2014

Martin Barnard looks at whether the ‘Health and Safety’ brand needs a complete rethink...

All of us will have observed the on-going criticism of a discipline that is regarded by an increasing number of people as old hat. For those of us who have lived through previous rise and falls of the topic, the most obvious feature is the relentless nature of the criticism and cynicism which now exists.  Indeed, it is hard to resist the argument that the tipping point has been reached with many, very reasonable, people believing that there is no way back for the term.

Most readers will have their own personal examples of where the perception of ‘health and safety’ - what it means and what needs to be done - have been either misinterpreted, miss-applied or, in some cases, both.


In understanding the argument in favour of starting afresh with the concept of wellbeing, one needs only look at some of the health and safety issues which, to its great credit, the HSE Myth Buster Panel is striving to remove from the agenda, in recognition that they are unfortunate and un-rewarding distractions from what really matters. 

We collectively need to move beyond, and rise above, situations where:

  1. A fabric store could not employ a work experience pupil due to scissors being around;
  2. Cafe refused to top up tea in same cup due to health and safety;
  3. Company insisting that all visitors must be shown the asbestos register;
  4. Inspectors and paperwork required for a small screw to be put into a wall;
  5. Spectacle wearer not allowed on bouncy castle;
  6. Spectator at racecourse had parasol confiscated on health and safety grounds as it could be used as a weapon.

In looking to ‘inspire excellence’, I believe the challenge of the future is to look to the concept of ‘wellbeing’ as the vehicle to over-come the cynics, convince the doubters and embrace the believers. Properly defined, structured and delivered, wellbeing is the solution to many of the chronic ailments which the conventional subject is suffering from.  In essence, it is the cure for the condition rather than a treatment of the symptoms.

Wellbeing will allow us to:

  • Revitalise health and safety and return it to what it should be – about people and those around them;
  • Put the health into health and safety – often dealt with as rehabilitation after a long period of absence rather than prevention;
  • Recognise stress for what it is, and the huge impact it has on UK plc – it is wrong to regard it as the  “modern bad back”, or that it simply does not exist;
  • Recognise the impact of travel and working long hours on people and those close to them – “my car is my office” is now an all too common phenomenon;
  • Encourage directors and managers to treat their most valuable asset, i.e. people, in a better way – empathy and passion are not longer signs of being too soft.

The willingness and ability to rise to the challenge of wellbeing will vary considerably between industrial sectors.  Some, such as industries like construction and heavy engineering, may find it difficult to give up the traditions of the past, where safety was dominant, and success was measured by a reduction in the Accident or Incident Frequency Rates.

Success in wellbeing will need to be measured in different ways, most readily achieved by moving away from an over reliance on negative output measures e.g. accident/incident rates, and building on the cultural benefits that come from promoting positive input measures.  In that way, individuals at all levels can recognise the benefits such an approach will bring, and readily buy into it.

In my view, the real challenge is to embrace all of the above in a vibrant and attractive package which people will buy into.  To inspire excellence and success, we must move on from the traditions of the past, and look to the future.  Let the future of wellbeing begin.  If we succeed – it will be a tonic!

Martin Barnard is a consultant at Capita

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