Ideas PoliceIt was all so good... then suddenly it became a first class, impedence matched, wi-fi enabled, 192kHz nightmare.

I was on the verge of the idea that would become the talk of my generation. Then the shadowy figure of the Health N Safety Sheriff busted in and ruined everything. It’s all going horribly wrong (I think Jeremy Clarkson is in here somewhere) then an alarm rings...

The wake-up call comes from the Production Services Association’s Andy Lenthall. ‘There’s no such person as the Health N Safetly Sheriff,’ he assures me, although I'm certain that he’s holding something back about Clarkson. ‘It’s a common mistake. He’s not coming to get you. I'm on my way.’

Show prevention... tales of mystery and imagination

‘Admittedly it’s a little risky, but it’s more than justified,’ I say, as I rub sleep from my eyes.

Andy Lenthall
Andy Lenthall: voice of reason
‘Interesting that you say risky,’ Andy begins, ‘and comforting that you’ve realised that there are risks involved in your new venture.’

OK Andy, awake now. I’m listening…

‘If you’re talking about the financial risks, I’m assuming that, one way or another, you’ve assessed them and made sure you have reduced the risks of financial loss as far as is reasonably practicable,’ he begins. ‘Of course, if it’s your own money then all you have to lose is your own money, so you might not have to be quite so careful. If you’re borrowing from Big Vern who owns the boxing club, you’ll probably be weighing up the risk of financial loss against your love of taking hospital food through a straw. One thing’s for sure – people don’t usually go into business with the intention of losing money.’

No, it’s not the money, Andy. It’s well… it’s more personal.

‘Nor do people go into (legitimate) business with the intention of injuring or killing themselves or other people. Sure, if it’s your life and yours only, there’s only you to blame and, as with your own money, you may take a greater risk. But, when it comes to other people, you’d be wise to reduce the risks as far as is reasonably practicable. Read the text books and you’ll find that the three drivers for health and safety are legal, financial and moral…

‘Hurt someone and you can end up in court, you’ll probably get fined and you may well lose sleep. It’s not “health and safety” stopping you, it’s sensible risk management making sure you reduce the risk as far as you can within reason.’

You’ve mentioned ‘reasonably practicable’ a couple of times now.

‘That’s the phrase that is enshrined in law; a phrase that the UK Government fought to keep. People say that health and safety is common sense – same thing really. If you’re organising a downhill mountain biking event, you’d reduce risks by holding it on the flat, but that wouldn’t be reasonably practicable, the measures taken would prevent the proposed activity taking place.

Jeremy Clarkson
Clarkson: show prevention conspiracy
Where does that man Clarkson feature in all of this, I wonder…

‘Jeremy Clarkson describes the BBC’s Health & Safety department as “show prevention people”. I think he said that before one of his fellow Top Gear presenters bounced on his head at 450kph.’

If it’s not out to get me, what exaclty is the deal with this ‘health and safety’ thing?

‘It’s not some all-seeing deity, nor is it a team of killjoys, hell bent on preventing any kind of excitement,’ comes the reassuring reply. ‘Health & Safety law in general doesn’t ban activities, it simply sets out a framework for creating a safe workplace, it demands that all work place activities are risk assessed to provide a written record of measures taken to reduce the risk – as far as is reasonably practicable.’

Risk aversion

So why are people so wary of health and safety when it’s part of our moral make-up to not kill or injure people?

‘I would venture that it’s fear of litigation. Take your downhill mountain biking. You’ve ensured that the course is challenging but safe; you’ve ensured that competitors are competent and you’ve got staff on hand should someone get injured. Then someone does take a tumble, they’re injured and they can’t work any more. A few hours of daytime TV in any litigious country will sow the seed of “no win no fee” promises. They pick up the phone and a team of lawyers is dispatched to prove that you’ve been negligent.’

Ah, I get it Andy! The blame lies with the lawyers…

‘Probably,’ he agrees. ‘But if you’ve got your head screwed on, you’ll have some suitable public liability insurance to cover the cost of any litigation. And this is where the real problem may lie. All too often, insurers will weigh-up (risk assess) the cost of fighting a negligence claim against simply settling out of court. This is where common sense, human nature and a level headed approach clash with maths. The costs of defending a claim can be many times more than the compensation paid. Once a settlement has been made, a precedent has been set and the cheque books are required.

‘And so the circle is complete, the accountants that can help you analyse the financial risk at the start of your venture are the people that instill the fear of litigation that has people running scared. Risk aversion rather than “that health and safety” – that’s the reason that the council cancels the pancake race.’

Reassured, I put the kettle on: Jasmine, Earl Grey or Builders?

'Is it safe..?'

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