Health and safety has had a bad press, blamed for everything from bans on conkers to the London riots. Richard Jones, head of policy at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), explains why this is a distortion of the truth.
Protecting people at work from injury, ill health or worse – it sounds like a noble cause. It sounds like a worthy aim for any employer and a respected profession for practitioners. It's an aim that wouldn't look out of place in an election manifesto, in fact.
But not everyone shares our view. health and safety suffers from an image problem. It remains a subject of ridicule for sections of the media, a soft target for politicos and a bête noire for some business leaders.
If you believe everything you read in newspapers, "health and safety" bans conker fights in schools, stops you putting up bunting, and generally stops you from having fun.
The truth is that such stories are usually down to the misinterpretation or misapplication of health and safety law. Sadly, that's not a line that boosts circulation figures.
Others see health and safety as a burden on business – inundating hard-pressed managers in a sea of red tape.
It's not, when done properly. When done sensibly and in proportion to risk, business investment in health and safety programmes leads to higher morale, greater productivity and higher profits through reduced costs. E.ON, for example, saved £12 million in one year through a new occupational health strategy and Glasgow City Council saved £4.5 million in one year with an absence management scheme.
Then there are those in politics who accuse health and safety unfairly – it was in part blamed, unbelievably, for last year's August riots.
On September 10 the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) announced a drive to scrap or overhaul over 3,000 regulations, implying that health and safety was holding businesses back. There are only about 200 health and safety regulations on the statute book, by the way, and most of these are sector specific. This was followed only two days later, with no recognition of the glaring contradiction, by the Prime Minister apologising for the Hillsborough tragedy, where health and safety management failings led to the deaths of 96 people.
We'd like to see a better appreciation of what health and safety legislation actually does. It tries to ensure that everyone who goes to work in the morning returns home in the evening in the same condition as when they left. Last year, 175 workers left home for work and never returned. That's almost a death every other day. On top of that, the HSE estimates that 12,000 people die each year, because of past exposure at work, primarily exposure to chemicals and dusts.
Surely legislation that stops people from being maimed, made ill or killed at work is worth protecting. So let's use good health and safety to boost growth.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is at the three main party conferences this year to promote our vision of a world of work which is safe, healthy and sustainable. Our message to conference is about the risks of distorting the reality of health and safety. To catch the eye of delegates, we are using fairground mirrors to distort their images – what you see isn't always what it seems. And the point we are making is a serious one.
We'd like people to get a new perspective on health and safety; one that does not undermine the work of those trying to cut the number of deaths and injuries in the workplace. Good, sensible health and safety is not a burden on business or a spoiler of fun – it is a cornerstone of a civilised society and a strong, prosperous economy.