Has health and safety gone mad?

  • 26 Oct 2016

The term “health and safety gone mad” is used by some to describe “over the top” measures that make health and safety seem excessive.

Industry red tape is often perceived as a costly hindrance to productivity, but there are those who feel that health and safety is an essential part of protecting employees and making their environment safer. So, has health and safety “gone mad” or is it making a positive difference to our health and working lives? 

We’ve all heard stories of schools banning conker fights and sack races, and not giving out pins with poppies for Remembrance Sunday, or closing off an outdoor area because of rain. At best, these stories create a bad impression of health and safety initiatives, at worst, they misrepresent it completely. If all the stories were true, surely we’d be living in a world without joy?

This trivialisation confuses employers about workplace risks and their responsibilities, and obscures people’s understanding of why such measures were introduced in the first place. After all, health and safety is supposed to be about saving lives and reducing injury, not stopping people from having fun.

As ever, awareness and understanding are the key to creating better relationships between people with differing views. It might help if we take a quick tour into the past to look at how we’ve ended up with the rules we have today.

The evolution of health and safety in the UK

The history of the UK’s health and safety legislations begins in 1833, when the Government passed the Factory Act to protect young children from exploitation and injury in the workplace. As the industry changed, the Act underwent various adaptations until it was eventually replaced with the Health and Safety at Work Act (HASAW or HSW) in 1974. 

This is still the primary piece of legislation for health and safety in the UK. HASAW was introduced to give employers responsibility over ensuring the health, safety and welfare of their employees, and provide support, guidelines and codes of practice to help them do so. 

The introduction of HASAW was significant, not only because it placed a duty of care on employers, but because it encouraged the entire workforce to get involved in thinking about how to create a modern and relevant system for ensuring workplace health and safety. In other words, health and safety was – and still is – a collective effort. 

But are these regulations still relevant in today’s fast-paced world where productivity is king?

Health and safety vs. productivity

Health and safety is often spoken about in terms of striking a balance between safety measures and productivity. There are still many companies that view safety training and regulations as productivity bottlenecks or hurdles, rather than enablers or business differentiators. Of course, implementing health and safety training, protective measures and administration is an expense for companies. It all takes time, effort and money, which – on the surface at least – is not always seen to generate a profit or lead to greater productivity i.e. it’s seen as pure cost and not an investment.

However, that’s quite a narrow view. Data from the Automation’s Safety Maturity Index, a series of studies that measures manufacturers’ performance, debunks the myth that health and safety limits productivity. 

Their findings suggest that best-in-class companies (those ranking in the top 20 percent of aggregate performance sources on the index) recorded impressive efficiency rates with just 2% unscheduled downtime. While that level of performance may be expected of best-in-class companies, what was unexpected is that these same companies had an injury frequency rate of 0.05%. This is 18 times lower than the average company, and significantly lower than the least productive companies. 

The index measured performance based on their culture (behaviour), compliance (procedural) and capital (technology). The low injury rate could suggest that health and safety is about much more than just regulation and can be followed without having a negative impact on productivity. 

Richard Evens, Commercial Director, from the British Safety Council says: “Companies need to be doing more than simply ticking boxes when it comes to health and safety. Investment in equipment and technology, as well as a company culture that cares for the welfare of employees, is essential for companies to benefit from the cycle of better safety leading to better productivity.”

The business case for health and safety – millions can be saved

In one study carried out by the HSE, the gas company Transco created a win-win situation by improving communication about safety issues, investigating accidents, encouraging line managers to take more responsibility and making it easier for employees to report issues. 

Their efforts completely transformed the company culture around health and safety – and the results certainly speak for themselves. Transco experienced over 80% reduction in lost time due to injuries, enhanced staff morale, improved their relationship with key stakeholders and even saved around £4.5 million through this reduced injury rate. 

In contrast to this, we have all heard instances of companies that have neglected their responsibilities only to result in a media storm due to serious consequences of breaching health and safety regulations. For example, the NHS made the national news in 2015 when Stafford Hospital trust was forced to plead guilty to breaches that had resulted in the deaths of four patients. 

This is of course an extreme example, but it does illustrate how dangerous it can be to trivialise health and safety with schoolyard quips and broad generalisations.


Far from health and safety “going mad”, it seems that the ones who are mad could be the companies missing out on the potential positive return that health and safety can bring to their business. 

By understanding the business case for health and safety, and then investing in training for their employees, companies from all sectors could transform their fortunes as well as their health.

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