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Changing perceptions

Source: Public Sector Executive Mar/Apr 12

IOSH 2012 considered how perceptions of health and safety can be challenged and improved; Kate Ashley reports.

The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) 2012 conference held in Manchester in early March included detailed discussed on the need for – and limits of – regulation, and the contentious issue of whether this really holds back business or not. PSE attended the event, and discovered a range of opinions.

Ragnar Löfstedt, professor of risk management at King’s College London and author of the most recent review into how health and safety regulation for businesses could be reduced, concluded that no radical change is needed for the industry.

Löfstedt admitted that some regulation could be consolidated, saying: “The sheer number of regulations does make life difficult for business, so I looked at ways to reduce the number without reducing the level of protection.”

He recommended this should be reduced by 35%, and was subsequently criticised both for going too far and for not being radical enough.

However, he maintained that it was “not the case” that health and safety laws were holding back business, and that regulation should only be changed as long as the measures were “science-based, risk-based and evidence-based”.

The Government has adopted all 26 of his report’s key recommendations, which include working closely with the EU to review safety and health to examine existing legislation and afford a greater understanding of risk in society.

Löfstedt recommended that individual selfemployed businesses should be exempt from much of the regulation that applies to larger companies, which carry higher levels of risk. In terms of enforcement, he suggested that HSE should gain the authority to direct all local authorities in their inspection activity.

An informal committee on risk will start work this September, chaired by Conservative MEP Julie Girling. Löfstedt also called for a House of Lords select committee to be set up, and urged delegates to lobby for this.

Chief executive of HSE (Health and Safety Executive), Geoff Podger, told the conference that following the review, it was his organisation that would have to implement all the work.

Podger explained that health and safety still needed further improvement, and denied that current regulations are excessive. He said: “Last year we visited over 2,000 sites and [at] 400 of them, just under 20%, we actually had to stop work immediately. We would like to say the impression this year is much better; it isn’t. We do not see a significant improvement at all and that’s why I think it’s very important to echo previous reviews, to say that we shouldn’t take a view of health and safety as in some way a ‘job done’.

“There is a great deal that needs to be done to improve our performance and we need continued reinforcement even to stay at our present level…when you want things to stay as they are, things are going to have to change.”

He acknowledged that this was particularly challenging in light of budget cuts that needed to be made at the HSE, as at all public sector bodies: “It’s illusory to think we can be exempt from the general climate of financial stringency.”

Yet Podger also stated that the excesses committed in the name of health and safety were real and “detract from the compliance of what people need to do to actually provide real health and safety”.

This view has been imaginatively marketed by the HSE in recent years with its publication of many health and safety ‘myths’, and its senior managers’ frequent appearances in the media to make clear the differences between health and safety legislation, and the many petty regulations and decisions made by individuals, which are often more to do with insurance than safety.

Podger continued: “It is still our view that the high standards of much of the profession are kept down by some,” with generic requirements imposed rather than advice tailored to a particular business.

He concluded by stressing the importance of keeping measures that really matter – “we don’t want and have no interest in diluting the real health and safety requirements, on which we still need to concentrate” – whilst eliminating those which are unnecessary, outdated or duplicates.

Graham Dalton, chief executive of the Highways Agency, used his experience of risk to offer advice on taking ownership of health and safety. Taking this seriously means being visible on construction sites and actively engaging in discussions about safety, he said.

“What is watched becomes managed and therefore better,” was his view.

Working efficiently with health and safety professionals, and challenging them to make compliance easy, involves being creative with ways of using policy, such as the introduction of e-books instead of dusty tomes that never get used.

“It’s got to be useable and it’s got to be accessible,” he said. “If you’ve got a form that wants filling in, it better only be one click away from someone’s desktop. Any more, and don’t criticise people for not doing it.”

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