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Don't Sweep Accidents at Work Under the Carpet

View profile for Robert Dempsey
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Monday 17 June saw two contrasting stories relating to the Health and Safety Executive’s efforts to prevent injuries or fatalities in the workplace.

Radio 4’s “Farming Today” featured Andrew Turner, Head of Agriculture at the HSE. He addressed the dangers of farming. As set out in previous articles by Roythornes Solicitors, farming still remains the most dangerous industry in terms of the number of accidents resulting in death or injury. Mr Turner spoke of the challenges facing the HSE in getting the message across to the farming community as to how to prevent and reduce the number of injuries. The number of deaths from farming accidents has remained consistent in recent years (on average over 30 deaths per year), and so his intentions would seem honourable.

By stark contrast, however, on the same day, The Sun’s front page led with an attack on the “meddling bureaucrats“ of the Health and Safety Executive, ridiculing its 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 there is a role for the Health and Safety Executive in identifying risks in the workplace and enforcing legislation to reduce these risks. Mr Turner recognises more still needs to be done in agriculture. He suggested 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 farming. 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 this is a tangible, concrete example of practical advice to help reduce the number of injuries.

So how does this compare with the actions of the HSE that sparked such outrage from The Sun? Well, firstly, the HSE is not attempting to ban broomsticks at work. Part of its 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 control the dust. This is what the HSE was looking to do in the case reported in The Sun.  The furniture maker was asked to use a commercial vacuum cleaner rather than a broomstick.

It is understandable employers would want to avoid onerous demands being imposed upon them. The furniture maker in The Sun article cited the cost of a commercial vacuum cleaner. What is also relevant, however, is Mr Northcroft employs ten members of staff and so has a responsibility to them as well as to himself. He is clearly successful, having built furniture for Adele and Theresa May, according to the article, and presumably, therefore, is in a position to carry out the proposals.

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.