Putting the common sense back into safety

Inaccurate media portrayal of Health and Safety red-tape contributes to misconceptions of how to sensibly manage risk. But good behavioural safety training can help people adopt a common sense approach, and tackle any tasks safely.

I often hear people claim that “Health and Safety is just common sense really”. With the exception of the more technical aspects of safety management, I couldn’t agree more. Good risk assessment, the foundation of all good safety management, is all about being sensible. Sensible identification of significant risks followed by sensible selection of appropriate control measures. However, just because it is common sense doesn’t automatically make it common practice.

So, when I heard reports that 25 firefighters were prevented from entering a 3 foot deep lake to rescue a stricken seagull due to “Health and Safety rules” I began to despair. It seemed that common sense had gone out of the window. Now, I don’t have a working knowledge of the London Fire Brigade’s procedures on undertaking rescues in these circumstances. However, I do know one thing for certain; there is NOT ONE piece of Health & Safety legislation that would have prevented the firefighters wading in, so long as a few basic safety measures were in place.

So I was confident there was more to it than met the eye. After all, how could people trained and competent to fight fire and rescue people from major traffic incidents really see 3 feet of water and a seagull as a threat to life? I was right; the decision not to enter the water had nothing to do with Health and Safety and more to do with the fact the seagull wasn’t actually in much distress! For the full details, click here.

So the common sense needed was actually absent from the media response to the incident – yet again! But this inaccurate representation of Health and Safety isn’t helpful. Not only does it unfairly tarnish the reputation of organisations such as the London Fire Brigade, it compounds the myth that Health and Safety is about stopping people from doing things and making sure they’re exposed to no risk whatsoever. This skewed view of Health & Safety is so commonplace now, most people actually believe it as true and don’t question apparently draconian rules. So it is hardly surprising that so many take no notice of what Health & Safety is really about and react so strongly against it. Many people are becoming more risk averse as a result and think avoiding undertaking any task is the only way to stay safe. So many others think that “elf ‘n’ safety” is such a joke that they become gung-ho and dismiss the idea that they need to take any precautions at all. Whether averse to risk or dismissive of it, both attitudes prevent people from being aware of how easy it can be to remain unhurt.

In contrast, when Health & Safety is applied with common sense it is an incredibly positive thing. It encourages us to use our common sense to identify what risks are present and what basic things we can do to stay safe. It empowers people to stop and think about the task, rather than either avoid it or jump in without a second thought. It supports using simple, sensible measures. It does not provide any reasons to stop people from doing it, but ways which enable them to do it and do it safely.

This positive aspect of Health & Safety is yet another reason why we believe so passionately in behavioural safety, and in particular our Teamwork training. It puts the common sense back into safety by connecting people with their own ability to stay safe. It challenges the ideas that risk avoidance or risk taking behaviours are best. Instead it helps people see risk and be able to identify the simple behaviours they need to avoid getting hurt. So when crossing the road we stop, look and listen; if wading into a lake we wear waterproofs, use buoyancy aids and make sure someone is there to help us.

If the media paid attention to true examples of Health and Safety being focussed on keeping people injury free in a sensible way, they could help people appreciate that, yes, “Health & Safety is just common sense” and actually make it common practice too.

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