Talking Point: Has health and safety really gone too far?

There's not a hard hat in sight for this brave chap  painting away almost at the very top of Blackpool     Tower in 1953.
There's not a hard hat in sight for this brave chap painting away almost at the very top of Blackpool Tower in 1953.
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Health and safety rules this week prevented the emergency services from rescuing a man from a lake just three feet deep. Do these regulations defy common sense? Or do we just take their positive effects for granted? Interviews by Rod McPhee, Neil Hudson and Grant Woodward

Yorkshire MEP Godfrey Bloom says health and safety guidelines are now interfering with our daily life.

“I can’t imagine being in the emergency services and standing around while someone was in trouble because my boss had told me not to do something on health and safety grounds.

“I wonder what these people tell their children when they ask them what they did all day.

“‘Oh I obeyed all the rules. A guy drowned of course, but I obeyed all the rules’.

“I would sack them all.”

“I would have thought the entire point of being in the emergency services was to put yourself in the way of danger to protect others, that’s their remit.

“Speaking as an ex-soldier, can you imagine years ago if I’d said during a patrol in Northern Ireland, ‘Oh no sir, I don’t fancy going on point duty, it looks a bit dicey to me’?

“Health and safety has got completely out of hand to the point where it now interferes with daily life.

“I was in Selby the other week where a lady with a florist’s shop was told to move her awning up two inches.

“It had been there for 50 years and no one had banged their head on it, but the health and safety man came round and told her to move it.

“Dave Cameron may say he’s going to get to grips with it but what can he do?

“All these laws and regulations come from Brussels.

“It doesn’t matter how keen he is to do something about it, he simply can’t.”

Professor Simon Kay is a top plastic surgeon working at Leeds General Infirmary and the Spire Leeds Hospital in Roundhay. Over the last 24 years he has primarily made his name through microsurgery specialising in transplanting and reconstructing digits and limbs.

This year he and his team at LGI are expected to carry out the UK’s first ever hand transplant. Patients vary from some born with deformities, some who’ve had to have their hands removed due to illness or others who have suffered terrible accidents. The world’s first transplant patient had his hand cut off by a circular saw.

“That was Clint Hallam, he lost his hand in an accident in prison. In the old days we’d also have to deal with people with hands cut off by circular saws and all sorts of things.

“Over the years we’ve dealt with many amputated arms and body parts which we’ve had to reattach. I’m glad to say it’s very rare now, but it used to be very common before health and safety took hold.

“I had a lovely little patient once, a little girl. She was one of twins and the hospital she was in only had one incubator, so she was put in a cardboard box with a hair dryer and badly burnt her hand. But, that was 24 years ago, and things were very different then.”

Paul Woolstenholmes, Fire Brigades Union national officer and former firefighter said: “Fire crews respond to a whole range of emergencies where life is threatened. Our training and experience means when most people are – rightly – running away from the danger area, we’re running towards it.

“We often work in hostile and difficult environments. That makes health and safety more important, not less.

“We always do the best we can with the resources, training and equipment we have. Every instinct is to save a life if there is one to save and we can do it without adding to the casualties.

“If your rescuers are becoming the casualties it adds to the problem. There are more to be rescued and fewer to do the rescuing, the result is more casualties and deaths.

“Firefighters do die trying to save the lives of others. A Manchester firefighter dived into a lake in his underwear with rope tied around him to try and save a young boy. The inquest found the boy had probably been dead for some time. The firefighter, Paul Metcalf, drowned in the lake.

“In Hertfordshire an experienced firefighter died on duty while at a road traffic accident, struck by a car. He was the third from his watch to die, two others having died at a tower block fire in Stevenage.

“In recent years firefighters have also died at Bethnal Green, Atherstone, Edinburgh, and Southampton. All in the line of duty.”

“We make judgments about how we can safely do our job, save lives and keep safe ourselves. In the environments we work in, that is critical.”

Tom McLoughlin, 71, is manager of the Leeds Irish Centre, but during the 1960s and 1970s he was one of a small army of Irish workmen who helped shape the skyline of Leeds with its many offices and tower blocks.

“The sub-contractors weren’t focused on safety back then, the main thing they cared about was putting up a floor of a building a week. I actually worked on West Riding House on Albion Street, which gives you some idea of the heights we were working at – it was just you against the elements in many cases.

“So it is better that we have health and safety regulations in place in building sites and that sort of thing. Sometimes they do go overboard, but, in my mind, it’s better that we have too many regulations than not enough.

“When we started out with the Leeds Irish Centre we would regularly hold benefit nights to raise money for the workmen injured in the construction of buildings and roads. Many of them had families and they were the main bread winners so they needed our help. Tellingly, over the years, we had to do less and less of those.

“Before that we heard stories all the time about friends of friends who had been injured, we’d occasionally hear about a fatality. But we earned good money and we just had to trust and rely on each other as teams of workmates to ensure our safety.

“Safety regulations didn’t enter into the equation, you just had to look after yourself and your workmates. It didn’t seem dangerous at the time, but it certainly was – and I’m glad that’s changed these days.”

Richard Jones, head of policy and public affairs at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said: “Health and safety has most definitely been a tremendous force for good. An estimated 5,000 lives have been saved since the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act in 1974 and the number of health and safety regulations has actually reduced by nearly half.

“Recent Government-commissioned reviews have praised Britain’s risk-based, goal-setting approach. As well as saving lives and preventing suffering, effective health and safety management supports business, enterprise and economic growth.

“Lots of employers already know this and are reaping the benefits. For example, EON, Rolls-Royce and British Gas have saved millions of pounds, just through good health and safety.

“Smaller firms are also doing well. For instance, one small scaffolding company saved thousands on their insurance premium, as well as getting efficiency gains, due to improved health and safety. While such improvements also saw productivity soar tenfold in a medium-sized engineering firm.

“Research tells us positive feelings about work are linked with higher productivity, profitability and worker and customer loyalty. While studies show that ‘good work’ is generally good for health and well-being. This has enormous benefit for individuals, employers and society.

“Sadly, last year there were 171 workers killed at work; 200,000 serious injuries; and 1.2m workers suffering illness they put down to work. Meanwhile, the British economy loses up to £22bn a year due to health and safety failures. So, there’s still much more work to do to reduce this financial and human toll and improve public perceptions.”

Sarah Champion MP

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