England seems set to have the same debate over OHS laws as Australia has been having recently – a debate that focuses on compliance rather than the establishment of a safe workplace.
UK business groups clearly see Lord Young of Graffham as being like-minded. On 15 June 2010 Adam Marshall, Director of Policy and External Affairs of the British Chamber of Commerce is reported to have said:
“While it’s absolutely crucial for employers to take steps to ensure people are safe in the workplace, the proliferation of health and safety rules has resulted in more bureaucracy and less common sense… Lord Young should look to reduce the number of health and safety processes and costs businesses have to face”.
Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses said :
“Our members want the Government to think small first so that health and safety laws stick with small employers, so that they can comply”.
Big business want safety to cost less, small business want to comply – same attitudes as in Australia. The “flexibility” of modern OHS legislation makes it very difficult to establish a compliance benchmark so it is unlikely that small business will gain much comfort from any changes. Big business has sufficient resources to follow the self-regulation options and establish their own compliance level and have that verified by external audits. This can be a costly option but is the result of being granted the flexibility that corporations have asked for many years.
The attitude of the British press to occupational health and safety can be seen in a 15 June 2010 article in The Telegraph by Philip Johnston. Firstly there is a ridiculous situation that illustrates non-OHS issues and then a list of how expensive it is to comply with regulations. By focusing on regulations, journalists are able to kick politicians and OHS regulators. Focusing on safety management is much more challenging for journalists and very few, if any, take this approach.
Johnston points out the inclusion in OHS legislation of “as far as is reasonably practicable” and says that time has resulted in some actions that in the 1970s were reasonable are no considered reckless and that the flexibility granted by “AFARP” is the problem. He asks
“Where does it stop? Where should it stop?”
Questions that business operators have been asking themselves, regulators and OHS professionals since the laws came into effect.
The response has to be “it stops when you establish a safe workplace”. The response must be turned into a challenge to business operators that reflects the effort, cost and hard work that safety involves. If business wants the flexibility that comes with self-regulation then it must accept the challenge of safety.
This is not a challenge for compliance, compliance should be a secondary consideration to making a workplace safe. To steal from Kevin Costner ” if you build a safe workplace, compliance will come”. If you focus on achieving compliance, you will flounder by always trying to look to someone else to tell you that you comply. Look to your own efforts, establish what you believe is a safe workplace and you are likely to comply with OHS law. Even if there is an incident that shows your workplace was not as safe as it could be, the regulators and courts are very likely to acknowledge your genuine effort and commitment and apply a softer penalty.
Johnston describes health and safety today in the UK as a “madness”. The risk in this perception is that Lord Young may share it and begin his review from the virtual reality created by the British press. Lord Young must remain focused on improving safety which means saving lives. If he does not, he runs the risk of increasing the madness.