Lord Young OHS review welcomed by UK’s HSE

The latest podcast by the Health & Safety Executive includes an interesting interview with the chair of the HSE, Judith Hackitt.

Hackitt admits that any review of occupational health and safety needed

“someone who could look beyond the remit of the Health and Safety Executive and look at what the other factors are out there that create the problems that we all know only too well that create all the nonsense and the myths.”

Lord Young certainly looks at other factors such as over-enthusiastic legal firms but it is hard to not think that someone other than Lord Young could have undertaken the review and come out with a more constructive plan of attack.  In many ways his report confirms the misperceptions of OHS.  Lord Young says, in his report:

“…the standing of health and safety in the eyes of the public has never been lower, and there is a growing fear among business owners of having to pay out for even the most unreasonable claims. Press articles recounting stories where health and safety rules have been applied in the most absurd manner, or disproportionate compensation claims have been awarded for trivial reasons, are a daily feature of our newspapers.”

This says more about the UK media than it does about the OHS laws themselves.  Lord young is very light on his recommendations to curb or counter the inaccurate reporting by the media.  He recommends combining food safety and OHS:

“Promote usage of the scheme by consumers by harnessing the power and influence of local and national media.”

He should have gone further but that would require looking at issues such as accuracy in reporting and the UK media is notorious for beat-ups and entrapment.  UK newspapers feed on the “Yes Minister” absurdities of bureaucracy and when health and safety relates to children, in particular, they go all out.

Lord Young points out the EU Directives as a particular source of OHS annoyance:

“…the Framework Directive of 1989 has made risk assessments compulsory across all occupations, whether hazardous or not, and part [sic] to the enthusiasm with which often unqualified health and safety consultants have tried to eliminate all risk rather than apply the test in the Act of a ‘reasonably practicable’ approach.”

This should be of particular note to Australian OHS professionals and businesses.  Some Australian industry representatives and OHS regulators believe that the risk assessment prominence has had its day.  Victoria dumped risk assessment as a compulsory element of safety management some time ago and the national OHS harmonisation process is taking a similar approach.  So instead of Find – Assess – Fix, it is now Find – Fix and Assess what cannot be fixed. [There is potential for a major schism between the disciplines of OHS and Risk Management in the direction the model OHS legislation is taking.  Risk Management may revert to the public liability and lose some of the broader influence it gained on the back of OHS management standards]

Hackitt says in the HSE Podcast that:

“…. [OHS has] become an easy excuse for laziness, this might cost money and so I just don’t want to do it.  But it’s much easier for lots of people to simply say I’m not doing it because of health and safety.  And what Lord Young I think has found from what I’ve discussed with him during the course of his review is being just how much that goes on, you know he’s written in the newspaper about toothpicks and about all sorts of nonsense examples he’s found himself, where people have hidden behind health and safety as an excuse when it’s quite clear it’s about cost-cutting or laziness or whatever.”

Blaming OHS makes laziness a response to mythical OHS requirements.  It is common in Australia, as well, to hear public liability and food standards issues to be grouped under OHS when they are clearly not and are controlled and regulated by very different laws, requirements and agencies.  What this indicates is that, although OHS law has been written so that the basic principles can be understood by nearly everyone, people continue to misunderstand OHS.  Perhaps as much effort needed to be put into public education of OHS as there has been into enforcement.

Lord Young says:

” My report highlights the role that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and local authorities have in promoting a common sense approach to health and safety. Their role is pivotal in ensuring that businesses, schools and voluntary organisations can operate in a way where health and safety is applied in a proportionate manner.”

The “common sense” line has perhaps distracted many from Lord Young’s comments which, perhaps, are asking for more clarity on OHS and a better understanding by the community.  In many ways OHS is becoming less occupational or the world is becoming more occupational.  OHS can be everywhere and everywhere can be a workplace.  In this context how can health and safety be regulated? What can the community expect of government?  These are the challenges that Lord Young has tried to address.

One fascinating link that Lord Young makes between OHS and the absurdity of its applications is the conduct of OHS consultants.  This is already being addressed in the UK but Australia, in particular, should take note:

“Fears of facing legal action after failing to manage risk appropriately often encourage organisations to use the services of costly health and safety consultants.  Currently there are no qualification standards for health and safety consultants and, as a result, they often adopt an overcautious approach.  This can lead to excessive and unwarranted costs to business and the voluntary sector or to the unnecessary cancellation of events on health and safety grounds.  I recommend that health and safety consultants be accredited and that processes are in place to ensure that assessments are proportionate.”

This is not about some obscure Core Body of Knowledge but about competence.  Singapore‘s regulation of OHS advisors may seem restrictive but it provides a reliability and consistency for businesses on OHS matters.  The Safety Institute of Australia has investigated accreditation for its members through the United States several times in the past decade but the time has never seemed right.  Queensland has it WHSOs (Workplace Health & Safety Officers) but this has been sacrificed in the name of OHS harmony.  (A strong argument could still be mounted for WHSO or equivalent to be introduced throughout Australia but only if some OHS organisations accepted that competency is not purchased with a membership but earned AND verified by an external body)  Lord Young is talking directly to OHS consultants and professional associations when he mentions Common Sense.

In Lord Young’s summary of recommendations on consultants he says

  • ” Professionalise health and safety consultants with a qualification requirement that all consultants should be accredited to professional bodies.  Initially the HSE could take the lead in establishing the validation body for qualifications, working with the relevant sector and professional bodies.  However, this function should be run by the professional bodies as soon as possible.
  • Establish a web based directory of accredited health and safety consultants.”
We must be careful to not simply respond by saying “we have a professional OHS body and a directory so we should be right”.  Any directory and accreditation must be independent, impartial, and maintained fairly and ethically.  This is a big ask and, in Australia at least, too big to entrust to any existing OHS organisation who are just too small, too under-resourced or too unrepresentative.   In order to salvage some good from the collapsing OHS harmonisation process, Australia could do a lot worse than introduce a robust, independent accreditation scheme for OHS professionals.
As a possible counterpoint to the HSE position, the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is preparing a detailed response to Lord Young’s report for release as a white paper in late November 2010.  In some areas, IOSH has been at the “pointy end” of criticism through Lord Young’s review process and the white paper is eagerly anticipated.

5 thoughts on “Lord Young OHS review welcomed by UK’s HSE”

  1. The HSE angst over what I\’m gunna call \”safety memes\” is something, that as you point out KJ, is utterly critical at this time of talk about a body of knowledge and accreditation. Hmm…I feel a wee article post coming up.

  2. I agree Tony. Enforcement fails because nobody is truly responsible but also anything Government related seems to be bogged down in unnecessary bureaucracy and paperwork.

    The simple processes need to be improved.

  3. Legislating was the genesis for the rules we have in place today. The regulations and application of the rules in all aspects to the work place should lead to compliance.

    Where are we today? the answer to that lies in your article and we are still no closer to really getting it right, although factional interests continue to struggle to find a position in the \”game\”.

    If the current legislation and its enforcement is failing, how do we think any so called \”professional body\” is going to change things unless they are just another lobby group.

    Accountability and clarity seem to be two words that are sadly missing in the debate.

  4. Until OHS has the W returned to it, then we will continue to see incidents within the workplace that injure maim and kill workers.

    Occupational Health and Safety is just rhetoric with out the WELFARE or all concerned.
    Simply put, if my WELFARE in the workplace is assured, then your WELFARE in the workplace is also assured.

    Lots of glossy brochures and posters behind the toliet doors will do nothing if they become common place.
    All the safety training on how to use a machine or mix chemicals or even mop a floor come to nothing once the training has ended.
    But return WELFARE to the mix and suddenly the reason for the OHS becomes exceedingly clear.

    For mine I would like to to WOHS, but that is not likely to happen.

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