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Rules, whose rules?

The landscape for safety changed radically in 1974 with the Health and Safety at Work Act, placing the duty on employers to predict how people may be harmed and put preventative measures in place. A sensible solution, recognising that regulators do not understand the risks businesses face, how technological change forces rapid change. So for most risks the spirit and intent of the law in the UK is that we should write our own rules to fit our own local circumstances – a philosophy that is helpful in many other
countries too. 

From 1992 onwards we adopted European led legislation which contains expressions such as suitable and sufficient, adequate and fit for purpose. These are imprecise words necessary to accommodate different circumstances in member states. What is suitable and sufficient ventilation in Spain would be a different level than in the more temperate UK. Similarly the focus of law is on a business deciding for itself what its controls need to be. 

The key that unlocks the understanding and interpretation of these woolly words is risk assessment. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that this tool empowers businesses to figure out control solutions for themselves. 

Why then do many businesses make themselves slaves to requirements set externally via management standards, HSE guidance (ACOPs) and what others in the industry are doing? While there is an argument to be mindful of the content of these things we must be brave and confident enough to build our own boat to sail these waters. Surely if we have good internal measures to keep people safe, then prosecution for non-compliance becomes very unlikely.

First published in Insight July 2016