Outside the marginals

a commentary on the politics that followed the UK 2010 & 2015 elections

Enslaved to Risk Assessment

One of the news feeds that I subscribe to is the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE’s) Health and Safety Myths. This section of their website seeks to debunk some of the Health and Safety nonsenses that we hear about.

Sometime it is amusing and sometimes depressing. Not just because of the stupidity of the “jobs-worths” who create the myths, but also because of the sometimes cack-handed response of the HSE which can be formulaic and often misses an open goal.

A case in point: Case 284 – Babies banned from toddler activity at local leisure centre

The enquirer was stopped from bringing the 11 month old into the event for “health and safety” reasons. The leisure centre had completed a risk assessment that was only done for 1-5 year olds and therefore under 1’s could not be in that room due to them being a trip hazard.

The rather formulaic response included:

… it is difficult to understand why this was not considered in advance and a means found to accommodate them. At best this is a case of poor communication, and at worst it is simply using health and safety as an excuse.

Surely the problem is the attitude to “risk assessment” and safety* in general – and the above case is a classic opportunity to make the point.

Safety is often (usually?) seen as a matter of “liability avoidance” and is therefore seen as the province of the insurers and lawyers. The law originally intended that it should be the province of all of us.

So, if you are into “liability avoidance”, what do you do?

  1. You prepare a full suite of risk assessments professionally done that can if necessary be produced in court as documentary evidence that you have done your duty.
  2. To ensure that they are professionally done (by someone who could be a credible expert witness – independent, qualified, sharp-suited etc.) you bring in an outsider to do the risk assessments.
  3. They need to do these reasonably quickly, so there is minimal communication with staff (or customers/service users) and often boiler plate text is used from previous clients.
  4. This process relieves the management and staff of the awful responsibility of worrying about Health and Safety – it’s all in the consultant’s (big) report on a shelf – somewhere.
  5. If any of the output of the process is known it carries with it an entreaty or command “do not deviate in any way from these prescribed processes – or you will be held responsible!”

And thus the loop is nearly completed.

  1. You don’t understand what is going on
  2. There are too many risk assessments for you to know them all anyway, so why even bother?
  3. You don’t really feel responsible and either:
    • Just stick blindly to the letter of the process, and as a result mistakes get made, or
    • You ignore it all as irrelevant – and mistakes still get made.
  4. Mistakes mean either:
    • your organisation looks silly due to “petty restrictions” – further discrediting “elf and safety”, or
    • people get injured or killed because the people involved did not think.

Then you close the loop:

  1. One of your colleagues or customers is injured or killed.
  2. The Courts, No win no fee liability lawyers,  the Local Authorities, even HSE get involved.
  3. Your lawyers and insurers get involved.
    • The lawyers believe that further documentation will help protect you from being sued again – or at least prove the organisation “did all it could”.
    • The insurers believe that further regulations will prevent future accidents from happening.
  4. It’s urgent, so you bring in consultants to review health and safety and write more risk assessments …


* One of the key aspects of Health and Safety Management is “risk assessment”. This starts with the basic question (arising from the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act) “have I ensured, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all my employees (section 2 (1)) and that I and other persons (not being my employees) who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety (section 3(2)).

Behind that legalese is the basic principle of Health and Safety

  • Have I taken all reasonable and practical steps.
  • To ensure the Health and Safety
  • Of myself and those who may be affected by my actions?

Risk Assessments are a tool to assist people in following that basic principle. The HSE guidance states:

Follow the five steps in our leaflet: Five steps to risk assessment PDF.

  1. Identify the hazards
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how
  3. Evaluate the risks and decide on precaution
  4. Record your findings and implement them
  5. Review your assessment and update if necessary

Don’t overcomplicate the process. … This is not the only way to do a risk assessment, there are other methods that work well, particularly for more complex risks and circumstances. However, we believe this method is the most straightforward for most organisations.



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