Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

'Conkering' the safety myths


If you believe the media, health and safety has banned everything from conkers and balloons to egg boxes and sports days. Not true, says Ray Hurst from the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH).

There are many myths out there about health and safety. The predominating image is one of blue shirted men with clipboards saying, "You can't do that, that's banned." This image couldn't be further from the truth of the modern day profession. But the image prevails.

Here's a bit of background about health and safety. It first began in 1802 with the Health and Morals of Apprentices Act. That's right, it's not some new fangled monster designed to make your life a misery - health and safety has been around for over 200 years.

Despite what the press reports say, health and safety is not about 'banning' things. Health and safety legislation says you have to do everything in a "reasonably practicable" way to prevent harm coming to employees, visitors and those in your care. That means there's always leeway, room for negotiation.

Done properly, health and safety is about finding a sensible way to allow things to happen; it's not about stopping life or fun activities.

What I find that I'm constantly fighting against is people using health and safety as an excuse to ban things that, with a little common sense and thought, could quite easily go ahead. It's often so much easier to say "oh, we won't do it at all then" than find a way to do it properly and safely. And, of course, who's going to argue with an excuse that says it's "for your health and safety"?

The trouble is, most of the time, if you dig a little deeper, you dig a little deeper, the reason for the ban isn't health and safety. It's fear of being sued, rising costs, diffificulty getting insurance or understanding what health and safety is all about, or it's just that the person in question can't be bothered. Take the 'old chestnut', if you'll pardon the pun. Who can forget the one about the Cumbrian head who made his youngsters wear goggles to play conkers? Now there is a one in a million chance a piece of conker might fly off and hit you in the face, but no health and safety expert is going to suggest purchasing goggles to play a game that has been played for well over a hundred years without any real serious injury.

My organisation, IOSH, sponsored the World Conker Championships last year to get this point across. Some people dressed up in all manner of safety gear just to take the mickey out of us, and Chris Evans recently said to me on BBC Radio 2 that he dressed up as a gladiator to play conkers. But I and three safety professional colleagues wore just our IOSH tops and bare knuckles - getting nothing more than a bruise for our troubles and a lot of fun out of it!

We hear often about the cancellation of trips, or sports days, or ball games involving young people being banned "because of health and safety". I'm not saying there aren't things to be wary of and, of course, there have been some tragedies on trips involving schools and youth groups.

But these are very much the exception to the rule. Most trips or sports days or games pass off without incident because they're well planned by more than capable leaders or teachers.

For young people to ever learn to fend for themselves in the big wide world, they have to learn to manage risk. Avoiding it completely will spell big problems when they reach the workplace - and it will make my health and safety colleagues' jobs even more difficult.

It's often said health and safety is about common sense. Take risk assessment. All of us risk assess on a daily basis without even realising it. From the moment you wake up and make your breakfast you are risk assessing. There are few more hazardous activities in life than driving to work, for instance!

School leaders are of course old pros at formal risk assessment, but there will be occasions where professional help and guidance is needed. And that's what IOSH members are there for (and with 27,000 of us in the UK, there's likely to be one near you.)

Above all, though, if you're either being told or thinking yourself that you can't do something because of health and safety, stop and ask why? You'll find in most instances that it's actually some other reason, and by narrowing it down you'll have a better chance of identifying ways to allow you to do what you want to do.

Above all, don't be fooled by ludicrous demands for protective equipment for activities like conkers in the name of health and safety - proper health and safety professionals will not demand that!

Ray Hurst is the president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health.

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