In September 2007, UK’s Health & Safety Executive produced a safety poster on the myth of students wearing safety goggles while playing conkers. HSE did not demystify the issue by examining the origin of the myth and only chose to debunk the myth.
The February 2011 edition of the Fortean Times provides a little more detail on the origin of the myth in its “mythconceptions” column. It reports on primary school teacher, Shaun Halfpenny’s, claim about starting the myth. The Guardian newspaper published a letter from Halfpenny in December 2009 in which he says:
“It was largely during the Thatcher and Major Conservative administrations that the health and safety culture was brought to bear in schools. Like all headteachers I spent tedious hours drawing up policies and writing risk assessments for all activities. It was therefore somewhat tongue in cheek that I alerted the media to the conkers-with-goggles story. I never dreamed it would eventually go global.”
[Interesting that Halfpenny mentions the Thatcher years as that was also the time that Lord Young, who recently investigated the burgeoning(?) “compensation culture”, was part of the government]
Halfpenny was frustrated by risk assessments. European OHS law has required risk assessments for some time as an essential part of OHS management. Significantly, Australia has moved aware from the mandatory risk assessment process as many regulators believe that risk assessments have been undertaken unnecessarily. In their view, some hazards have well-established controls that are obvious without a risk assessment. Mandatory risk assessments encourage unnecessary paperwork and expense in many instances.
This is a view that is likely to be reflected in UK and European circles and certainly was seen as such by Shaun Halfpenny.
As he says in his letter, conker championships have introduced safety eyewear. This may be an example of what some would see as the “common sense” of safety – goggles are not essential but they’re a bloody good idea (just in case). Indeed it could be argued that safety eyewear in this instance was an appropriate hazard control measure as it is has not cancelled the activity. Many of the OHS critics quote the cancellation of centuries-old traditional activities on the basis of health and safety but health and safety is more often about finding ways of undertaking the same activity in a safety manner, rather than cancellation.
In 2011 SafetyAtWorkBlog will be looking closely at the role, and the absurdity, of risk assessments in the workplace. It is suspected that unnecessary risk assessments are a major element of the “red tape” that many in Australia and elsewhere complain of.