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Oct
09
2006

HSE sick and tired – and likely to remain so

On 22 August 2006 Bill Callaghan, Chair of Britain’s Health and Safety Commission (HSC – overseer of the HSE, the Health and Safety Executive) issued a press release entitled: “Get a life”, says HSC”. He announced: “I’m sick and tired of hearing that ‘health and safety’ is stopping people doing worthwhile and enjoyable things when at the same time others are suffering real harm and even death as a result of mismanagement at work.” He urged people to “focus on real risks – those that cause real harm and suffering – and stop concentrating effort on trivial risks and petty health and safety.”

On 28 September Geoffrey Podger, Chief Executive of the HSE, returned to the attack in a letter to The Times (letter Sept 28) . Like his boss he decried the nation’s inability to distinguish the real from the trivial. The HSE he said was focused on risks that killed people: “we make no apology for that.”

Stung by ridicule in the popular press attaching to cancelled school trips and bureaucratic concerns about hanging flower baskets, conkers and homemade cakes at village fetes, the nation’s risk manager has launched a public relations campaign in support of “sensible risk management”. Henceforth “trivial risks” should be ignored; effort should be concentrated on “real risks”.

The HSE provides some numerical guidance to what it means by trivial; it defines a risk of death of less than one in a million per year as “tolerable”, and “insignificant and adequately controlled”.

The risk of dying as a result of an accident involving a tree (see Dangerous Trees) is about one in 10,000,000 per year, surely tolerably trivial. And yet, after an accident on New Year’s Day 2005 in which someone was killed by a tree that blew down in a storm, the police took until July 2006 to announce that they had decided not to prosecute the owner of the tree, and the HSE is still investigating and may yet prosecute. Why? It was an accident that caused, in the words of Mr Callaghan and Mr Podger, “real harm and suffering”.

The reason why the HSE’s distinction between the real and the trivial is unhelpful is that it is applied after the event. With the help of a vivid imagination almost anything – conkers, hanging flower baskets, door mats, home-made cakes at village fetes – can have the potential to cause serious harm, and invite the protracted, anxiety-generating, attentions of the police and the HSE.

Risk is a word that refers to some adverse event that might happen in the future. It exists only in the imagination. But should that event occur, however unlikely it was imagined to be, litigious hindsight can usually transform the “accident” into a case of culpable negligence.

Unless and until the HSE demonstrates, after the event, an ability to recognise genuine accidents when it sees them, it will continue to be a cause of the excessive risk aversion that it decries.

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