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Health and safety – bureaucratic nightmare or life saver?

26th April 2012

You may have noticed through reading this blog, or the daily newspapers, that the Government is putting in place a raft of reforms to the current personal injury compensation system in England and Wales which are due to be introduced in April 2013. The Government hopes that these reforms will reduce the number of claims brought, reduce the cost to the insurance industry of dealing with these claims and make it easier for them to defend claims.

The proposals, when introduced, will make it harder for legitimate claimants to obtain compensation and the balance of power between individual claimants and the juggernaut which is the insurance industry will radically shift in favour of the latter.

However, this is not enough for the coalition Government it seems. They also propose to reform the often wrongly maligned health and safety laws at the same time.

Now, I am the first to admit that it is very easy to knock these regulations. You only have to pick up a certain daily newspaper to read an almost daily diet of cases when H&S is applied in a silly, negative way. However, these regulations have been built up over a period of 50 years to protect from bad practices in the work place, to make life safer for workers and to prevent exploitation.

Three stories about health and safety have recently made the news.

First, the Mail ran a story about the police refusing to chase a gang of thieves who were making their getaway on quad bikes, as to have done so would have put the thieves in danger because they were not wearing crash helmets. As a consequence someone at Police HQ made the decision to abandon the chase because of H&S reasons. Extraordinary, I hear you say.

Secondly, there was news that the Olympic stadium in Stratford has been completed without one single life being lost. This is the first time in history that a brand new Olympic stadium has been built without the loss of life of someone (usually several lives) engaged in the project. The builders say that they put health and safety at the top of their priority list and everything that was done during the project was fully risk assessed – apparently, health and safety regulations were never compromised even once. When one compares that with the number of lives which were routinely lost in the past in similar building projects this must be seen as a major improvement. Surely, here, the builders should be applauded.

Thirdly, two senior Fire Officers are currently facing court proceedings for insisting that four fire-fighters under their control were sent into a burning store where there was no danger to human life. All four fire-fighters lost their lives as a result. It is contended by the prosecution that basic risk assessments were not carried out and that all four fire-fighters lost their lives unnecessarily. It is certainly arguable here that a correct use of health and safety considerations would have saved lives.

We have come a long way in the last 50 years. Health and safety has made us all safer, whether it is at work or because of regulations relating to the use of asbestos in buildings or ensuring the safety of pupils on school trips. Relaxing these regulations is a major mistake in my view. The problem is how the regulations are often applied (see story 1 above) rather than the laws themselves. This Government seems to like taking a sledgehammer to crack the proverbial nut, but this really is turning the clock back to the dark ages.

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