Don’t Sweep Accidents at Work Under the Carpet

Last June saw two contrasting stories relating to the Health and Safety Executive’s efforts to prevent injuries or fatalities in the workplace.

Rob Dempsey, associate at Roythornes Solicitors, questions where the balance lies when approaching this debate, particularly when looking at the agricultural sector.

Last month Andrew Turner, head of agriculture at the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), was featured on Radio 4’s “Farming Today” where he addressed the dangers of farming. The agriculture industry remains the most dangerous sector in terms of number of accidents resulting in death or injury.

Mr Turner spoke of the challenges facing the HSE in communicating to the farming community how best to prevent and reduce the number of injuries. The number of deaths from farming accidents has remained consistent in recent years (on average more than 30 deaths per year) so his intentions would seem honourable.

However, in stark contrast Monday’s front page of the Sun led with an attack on the “meddling bureaucrats” of the Health and Safety Executive. The paper ridiculed the HSE’s decision to call upon a furniture maker, Michael Northcroft, to use an alternative to a sweeping brush in his factory. The story was presented as the HSE trying to ban brooms from his factory with the imaginative headline pun, “Daft as a Brush”.

So where does the balance lie?

The number of injuries in farming – and the wider world of work – shows that there is a role for the HSE in identifying risks in the workplace and enforcing legislation to reduce these risks. Mr Turner suggested that the structure of the construction industry, for example, allows good practices from larger companies to trickle down to smaller firms.

This same structure is not so prevalent in agriculture. He gave practical examples in his Farming Today interview, stating that 20% of fatal injuries in farming could be avoided simply by putting the handbrake on before leaving a vehicle. If this is correct, then it offers a tangible, concrete example of the potential impact practical advice can have towards reducing workplace injuries.

So how does this compare with the actions of the HSE that sparked such outrage in the Sun? Well firstly, the HSE are not attempting to ban broomsticks at work. Part of the HSE’s role is to enforce legislation that is designed to protect millions of employees every day. One of these regulations will be familiar to many, the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH).

This recognises the dangers to health caused by dust in the workplace. The HSE attributes 12,000 deaths every year to work-related lung disease. The regulations are therefore in place to reduce this risk by, for example, using mechanical controls to manage the dust. This is what the HSE was looking to do in the case reported in the Sun as the furniture maker was asked to use a commercial vacuum cleaner rather than a broomstick.

It is completely understandable that employers would want to avoid onerous demands being imposed upon them. Indeed, the furniture maker in the Sun article cited the cost of a commercial vacuum cleaner. However, it’s important to mention that Mr Northcroft employs ten members of staff and therefore has a responsibility to them as well as himself.

This resistance to change was also touched upon by Mr Turner in his interview on Farming Today. He referred to the fear within the farming industry that changes in work practices would automatically be more expensive or complicated. His handbrake example was used to show positive changes did not need to be financially prohibitive.

The Sun led with a clever and eye-catching headline and tapped into concerns of government interference in various aspects of life including the workplace. To be fair the paper did quote the HSE in the story, touching upon the dangers of prolonged exposure to wood dust.

Unfortunately, it risks undermining the good work of the HSE if the only thing taken away from the story is the incorrect belief people are trying to ban brooms. The more measured language adopted in the Farming Today programme on the same day gave a greater insight into the work of the HSE and its efforts in reducing the number of accidents at work.

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