UK businesses need H&S education

Crazy health and safety stories still make headlines, with new horror stories emerging that prove workplaces remain dangerous and some bosses still don't understand safety law, says H&S consultant
Having a ball at work

Looking beyond the many tales that exist in a world of urban myth and newspaper re-telling, a leading UK health and safety law consultancy has dug a little deeper and found workplace tales that actually happened, and show that education in this much-maligned subject is still sorely needed.

Among them are rooms left completely empty in a misguided attempt to prevent accidents and ladders balanced on tables to reach a distant light bulb in a presumed attempt to break a leg, the Protecting.co.uk consultancy says.

"Stories of over-the-top protection are still out there," says Protecting.co.uk spokesperson Mark Hall, "as are alarming tales of workers risking life and limb on a daily basis.

"Both clearly show that training in health and safety is still as relevant as ever, both in the boardroom and the shop floor."

Among the unusual and sometimes frightening health and safety tales told to Protecting.co.uk staff in recent months are:

Over-the-top policing:

A company leaving one office completely empty because it had a fire escape and "people might fall over their desks in a fire".

Staff required to attend a training course so they could use a communal kettle and microwave.

Workers banned from bringing in lunches from a nearby takeaway on the grounds that "they might get food poisoning on our premises and blame the staff canteen."

A lunch-time yoga session cancelled in case of injuries "that might have insurance implications"

Careless workers:

One maintenance department which balanced a ladder on desks and work tops to change light fittings: "We've done it this way for years, never fallen off."

A "safe lifting" course that descended into chaos when the trainer injured himself showing how not to lift a heavy item.

Fire doors wedged open with fire extinguishers "because I work in both rooms, and the door's too heavy".

"When we hear another story of excessive health and safety policing, we know it's because of a lack of proper training," says Protecting's Mark Hall. "Without a working knowledge of how the law applies to them, managers, school head teachers and local authorities sometimes make bewildering decisions.

"Good health and safety training teaches people in a position of responsibility to think clearly and assess risk with a level head. There's no need to ban the school egg-and-spoon race because of salmonella."

That's a far cry from tales of schools which ban children from running in the playground, or bus drivers who refuse passengers because they are carrying a cup of coffee. It no longer matters if they are true or just urban myths, because once they make the pages of the press they become the truth as far as the public are concerned, Protecting says.

"That's why education is so important," says Hall, "We've got to stop these ridiculous tales emerging in the first place, both by instilling common sense into decision makers, and teaching workers not to take ridiculous risks in the first place to make health and safety such a pressing issue."

The fact is, although workplace deaths have fallen to a record low, the figure of 133 for the year 2013/14 is still 133 too many. It's tougher H&S laws along with better education that's to thank for the shrinking death toll.

"The next time you read a story about 'Health and Safety gone mad', remember that the motivation is correct, but they just need nudging in the right direction," says Hall.

"Nudging after a careful risk assessment, of course."