Archive | April, 2011

Remember the dead and fight for the living

28 Apr

Today is International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD), and as such I attended a couple of events to ‘remember the dead and fight for the living’. At 9.30 this morning, workers, union employees and union members from all areas of the public and private sectors – along with myself – gathered beside the statue of the unknown construction worker next to the Tower of London to pay our respects.

As someone who has experienced the death of a family member due to injuries sustained at work, I found it allowed a poignant opportunity to contemplate the scores of people around the world who have had their lives cut short because of negligent health and safety management at work. Black balloons were released, one for each worker who had died in London in the past year, there was a minute’s silence and wreathes were laid in commemoration.

The crowd heard a series of speakers, one of which was Unite general secretary Gail Cartmail. She expressed concerns about workers’ who fear speaking up about their safety with in a climate of widespread job insecurity. It will be interesting to see whether this becomes more of an issue as increasing numbers public sector workers are made redundant.

There was also a lot of anxiety expressed about the future of health and safety with the reforms to legislation commissioned by Chris Grayling, secretary of state for employment, and the falling number of proactive HSE and local authority inspections and the cessation of inspections to workplaces categorised as ‘low-risk’ (such as quarries and many areas of manufacturing).

At 12 o’clock, amid all the tourists and news crews setting up to film the royal wedding tomorrow, a protest was held outside of the Department for Work and Pensions’ offices in Westminster. Wonderful trade union banners were unfurled and a megaphone was produced, and a series of trade union representatives and campaign organisers proceeded to pronounce their commitment to making workers’ lives safer and their frustration and condemnation of the looming cuts. HSE inspector and Prospects representative Simon Hester even managed to rouse Chris Grayling from his office, who pronounced to the crowd ‘my door his always open to the TUC’ (but presumably not at that moment, as he didn’t stop to talk for any longer and wandered off in the other direction…).

It was interesting to speak to so many people committed to health and safety, and heartening to know that with their and the British Safety Council’s efforts, occupational safety and health will always be a high priority on the political agenda.

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We shall remember them

27 Apr

Although the key aim of good health and safety management is preventing people from being killed or injured in the first place, it is an inescapable fact that every day across the world scores of people die in workplace accidents and many thousands more are seriously injured or made ill – often as a direct result of their employer’s negligence.

It is vitally important that these people – and the terrible fates that have befallen them – are remembered, not just because we should always commemorate the dead in some way, but also because the very act of commemorating people who have been killed at work provides a sharp reminder to us all to strive to make every workplace – and every job – safer and healthier.

Tomorrow provides a chance for everyone – from employers to shop floor workers – to do just that since Thursday 28th April is International Workers’ Memorial Day. The day, which is marked around the world, commemorates the many thousands of people who have died, been injured or made ill by their work, and will see bereaved families, workers, trade unions and employers in most countries organising events, demonstrations and vigils to “remember the dead – but fight for the living”.

In the UK, there will be rallies and wreath-laying events in many major towns and cities, and for those of us nearby and able to attend, these provide a chance to pay our respects and perhaps reflect on what else can be done to protect both ourselves and others who could find themselves in danger at work. However, the easiest and most common way for people to mark the day is hold a minute’s silence at work – ideally at 12pm, or if not, at an appropriate time.

So if you – or your boss – has forgotten about the significance of 28th April – the date chosen for Workers’ Memorial Day each year – there is still time to pay your respects to the fallen, in the simplest possible way.

For more details on Workers’ Memorial Day, including a full list of planned events, go to:

http://www.direct.gov.uk/en/Nl1/Newsroom/DG_196896

The risky business of living

26 Apr

Last week I was on the bus. As passengers were walking to the end of the bus to take their seats, a woman stumbled and threw herself into the lap of an elderly man. He helped her up, got her on her way and said, “No problem” probably in response to her lack of communication to him. Hearing that, she turned round and snorted, “It’s not like it was my fault!”

Sunday night, I was in a bar celebrating my brother’s birthday. People were dancing, flinging arms, gesticulating wildly to be understood over the music. I was one of those people and while I waved at someone over the other side of the bar, my elbow went into the beer bottle my boyfriend was drinking and it smacked him in the teeth. His front tooth was ever-so-slightly chipped. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” I shouted over the racket. “Don’t worry, he said. You didn’t mean it.”

On the way home, and still apologising profusely, I thought about that woman on the bus. It had annoyed me that she had immediately shirked all responsibility for her lack of balance and I silently vowed not to be like her. I know her lessened coordination on the moving bus wasn’t exactly her fault, but her attitude about it, quite honestly, stank.

Accidents happen. That is a fact of life and something which we all have to live with. From the moment we turn on the kettle in the morning, to the challenging commute on bicycles or public transport; from a distracted moment at work reaching for something, to taking care of our home: painting, cleaning, mowing the lawn. We have all, no doubt, had a minor accident and learnt something from it.

Managing risks is something different, and something which takes a little time, effort and thought. Risks are more than what you can see: the ladder balanced precariously; the puddle of tea; the wires haphazardly crossing the office. The way we sit; not using a cycle helmet; what we eat; the breaks we give ourselves during our working day: these are all potential risks to our health, safety and wellbeing and should be managed so. And these examples are ones which we can take responsibility for.

Taking responsibility for our own health and safety is something which should be taught and practised. The British Safety Council does this by giving school children and young workers the chance to get free, accredited health and safety qualifications. It gives them a start, so that their workplace is that little bit safer for them and they are more aware.

Teaching children to be risk averse and fear everything from conkers to footballs is nonsense and counterproductive. In a society which readily blames the ‘compensation culture’ and hungry lawyers for its over-the-top reactions to health and safety rules, we have to take responsibility for the risks. A spokesman for the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers said recently: “Accidents are a fact of life, and it is not possible to make a claim for such a mishap. But negligence is avoidable and can shatter lives. People need protection from needless injury. Health and safety laws are in place to protect vulnerable people.”

This is the point. Taking risks neither too extreme on the cautious side or the reckless side leaves plenty of middle ground for proportional health and safety: from looking after yourself and playing an active role in your organisation’s health and safety, to seeking advice and professional help when you are unsure or in a new situation.

Someone once said that safety does not happen by accident. That is true. Accidents do happen that way. But shoulder some of the health and safety, thinking about what could go wrong. It’s about not shirking your chance to be healthy and safe.

Professor Löfstedt’s independent review

20 Apr

The government has today announced the terms of reference for Professor Löfstedt’s independent review of health and safety and the membership of the independent panel whose role is to “provide constructive challenges”. The aim of the review is to consider opportunities for reducing the burden of health and safety legislation on UK businesses while maintaining progress in improving health and safety outcomes. Full details of the terms of reference and membership can be found at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/lofstedt-tor.pdf

The task that has been set for Professor Löfstedt and his advisory panel is enormous. Despite the scope of the review of legislation being far narrower than earlier intimated – HSW Act and sixteen other pieces of primary legislation are out with the scope of the review – the task of reviewing 200 sets of secondary regulations and ACOPs to see what if any can be simplified, consolidated or abolished will require considerable resources, expertise and a cool head. Importantly the review has been asked to consider the link between these regulations and positive health and safety outcomes and further whether the law needs to be strengthened in respect of irresponsible employers. The British Safety Council has already written to Professor Löfstedt inviting to speak at our conference in London on 6 July, “The future landscape of health and safety”, and indicated that we and our members are keen to submit evidence. We look forward to hearing your views.

Gulf of Mexico: one year on

20 Apr

It was a whole year ago today that the Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico was engulfed in flames after methane gas from the well, under high pressure, shot up the drill column and exploded, killing 11 people and releasing over 4 million barrels of oil into the ocean; it was the worst accidental offshore oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry.

Superficially, things seem to be going back to normal: tourists are beginning to return to the area, the fishing industry is beginning to recover, pelicans are beginning to nest on outlying islands. Even the federal agency that oversees offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico has begun to issue permits for offshore drilling again: 11 deepwater and 49 shallow water. And the cleanup operations are coming to an end. BP appointed an advisor to coordinate the cleanup of beaches, whose first assessment of 4,000 miles of coast identified 1,000 miles that had been affected, 200 of which were heavily oiled. According to official reports, only 15 miles of heavily oiled beach remain to be cleaned.

On closer inspection, however, everything is not quite as it should be. Scientists cannot agree about how much oil there is left in the Gulf to clean up; researchers at the University of Georgia predict that up to 50% of the oil spilled is still in the ocean, yet other independent scientists say there is not sufficient evidence to support this. Samantha Joyce from the university believes most of the oil is lying at the bottom of the ocean, a claim that contradicts the Obama administration’s assertions. Many Gulf Coast residents are reporting illnesses seemingly caused by the spill. And while marine life seems to be struggling (there are unusually high numbers of dead dolphins along the coast and reports of anglers catching fish with large legions and rotting fins), state officials are still in the process of recording the harm that has been done. Initial reports indicate it is not as bad as first predicted, yet a full survey of the seabed is still to be carried out.

With so many areas of uncertainty surrounding the disaster, it may be many more years before we know the full extent of the damage done.

Cotton wool culture out of control

18 Apr

A friend of mine recently told me about an incident concerning her daughter’s school, which I found absurd to say the least.

Her daughter was due to celebrate her 9th birthday and, as it was a school day,  her mum (my friend) was planning to send her to school with some cakes and biscuits as a special treat to celebrate the day.

But when she mentioned her plans to one of the teachers while picking her daughter up from school one afternoon, she was told that only fresh fruit was allowed to be brought into school for the children as some of the kids may have a gluten intolerance or there may be traces of nuts which could cause an allergic reaction in some of the children.

I don’t know if there were actual pupils at the school who were allergic to cake or if the school was just covering its back, but surely the school should have a list of those pupils and have alternative arrangements in place for them so the rest of the children don’t have to miss out?

And what happens if one of the kids is allergic to fruit?

Similarly, there was a story in the Daily Mail (where else?) about a mother and her three-year-old son who were ‘kicked out’ of Tesco because the son was holding a balloon.

The security guard told them balloons were banned in the store because they could cause a severe reaction if they brushed past someone with a latex allergy. Yet, according to reports, there were balloons in the entrance to the store in Bristol.

A spokesperson for the Tesco store said there was a policy in place because a member of staff at this particular store had a severe latex allergy so customers were asked not to bring balloons into the shop.

If someone had a severe latex allergy, surely they could make up their own mind whether they wanted to walk down an aisle with a kid holding a balloon, or at least look where they were walking to avoid brushing past the balloon.

With the Royal Wedding fast approaching and the shops encouraging us all to hold street parties, all I see when I walk into a supermarket at the moment are balloons and banners. Maybe the member of staff in question should avoid working in a supermarket altogether and work somewhere where there are fewer opportunities for balloon incidents?

My point is that people shouldn’t be prevented from having fun because of a tiny minority that has somehow got ‘wrapped up’ in this cotton wool culture.

I admit the fact that maybe the schoolchildren who are supposedly allergic to cake don’t know their own mind to be able to say ‘no’ to treats and understand the consequences if they do eat a party ring, but why should the other 20 kids miss out on a jammy dodger once in a while?

Schools in particular have a fear of being sued, which is a very sad state of affairs in today’s society and should be stopped.  I blame the parents!

A common sense approach?

15 Apr

On Wednesday I attended a conference at The Barbican, Health and Safety Reform 2011: A Common Sense Approach. The Brutalist architecture and the rabbit-warren of corridors and rooms provided an interesting backdrop to the proceedings. I’m new to the British Safety Council’s communications team (I started on Monday), so it was a bit of a crash course in the key issues facing the management of health and safety at the moment. I’ve been engaged to a certain extent with health and safety over the course of last year (I worked in the British Safety Council’s Customer Service Team and the Examinations Department before moving here) but this was my first opportunity to attend and engage in discussions regarding the future direction of the field.

It was an interesting conference (though I must admit, a lot of the technical information went over my head). The conference aimed to provide a platform for debate concerning the legislative reforms, the attempts to tackle ‘compensation culture’ and the red tape and bureaucracy that weigh businesses and local authorities down.

The event saw talks from Judith Hackitt, chair of HSE, our very own Neal Stone, John Armitt of the ODA and panel debate attended by, among others, Madeleine Abas, a leading health and safety lawyer and Amanda Brown, assistant secretary of the employment conditions and rights department of the NUT.

I particularly enjoyed the panel discussion. The audience were invited to pose questions to the panellists: ‘has the corporate manslaughter act been a white elephant?’, ‘is common sense all that common?’ (the panellists didn’t seem to think so), ‘is there really such a thing as a compensation culture in this country?’.

The Department for Work and Pensions’ report Good Health and Safety, Good for Everyone says that businesses, particularly SMEs, are weighed down by current health and safety legislation and concerns over potential litigation, and we need to free them from these burdensome shackles so that Britain’s economy can grow and an entrepreneurial spirit flourish. In 2008 the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform conducted a survey of SMEs, with some respondents saying that health and safety regulations were nearly twice as much of an obstacle to business success as any other area of legislation. Derek Allen, the executive director of Local Government Regulation, suggested in his talk ‘Liberation from Legislation’ that we need to cut through unnecessary and outdated regulations, and it seems this opinion is widely shared. The government’s drafted in Professor Ragnar Löfstedt to review health and safety legislation. Part of his brief, according to Good Health and Safety…, will be to look into whether there is sound justification for any of the EU directives we’ve adopted.

A fair few people expressed concerns over European Union health and safety directives and the challenge these seem to pose to the Coalition Government’s attempts to reduce the legislative burden. Madeleine Abas suggested that some of the proposals on the table at the moment will go nowhere as the UK is governed by onerous EU directives; directives that the country has strongly backed.

In his speech, Neal Stone mentioned that the British Safety Council recently surveyed its members regarding the proposals laid out in Lord Young’s Common Sense, Common Safety. Judging by the survey, broadly speaking, the health and safety law reforms aimed at reducing the regulatory burden on small businesses are not supported.

The conference was interesting and very I’m glad I attended. In his speech Neal called for a public debate into the future of health and safety as the consequences will be wide ranging. I look forward to making my own common sense contribution.