Elfin Safety.

Being a populist is easy. All you have to do is pick whatever particular bugbear is being demonised in the press, say it appears to have “gone too far”, quote a few examples clipped from years old newspapers,  then give yourself a get out clause where you admit that “there are some benefits” but conclude that you will shear away the bad and leave the good, while not being particularly clear about how you will do that.

If you want modern British conservatism in a nutshell, that’s about it. So it’s no surprise David Cameron gave a speech attacking Health and Safety laws today. Where Clarkson leads, so follows Cameron.

So yes, I’m against people applying rules in non-common sense ways. So are we all.  But it frustrates me to read a political leader talk this kind of lazy populism, when they could do better. 

So lets look at what’s really happening at work.

Ten years ago, nearly forty million days a year were lost to work related ill health and injuries. Now it’s just under thirty million. 

So we’ve got ten million days less of people being off work because they were injured, or hurt or sick from something they had to do at work. Even if we halve that, taking the most conservative approach to the data imaginable, then that’s over twelve thousand years of workplace injury that’s been lost in the last decade.

Think about that for a moment.Twelve. Thousand. years. of people not being injured, or in pain. Twelve thousand years of extra productivity in the economy and less hassle for managers and small business owners.

But all right, that’s not all due to “Health and Safety” of course not. Some of it is better A&E treatment, fewer cancelled GP appointments, more efficient working practices, that sort of thing.

So let’s just look at major injuries and deaths.  More serious injuries – those that left the worker off work for three days or more –  are down by over a third in ten years.

As for the most serious injuries at work – so called “fatal or major injuries”, well in 1999, 116 workers in every hundred thousand suffered a fatal or major injury. This year, the number is 105 per hundred thousand. 

And looking at the most serious category of all – deaths at work – the numbers show a decline, with 129 employees dying in 2008/9 compared to 183 in 2002/3.   worryingly, the exception to this is amongst the self employed, where the death rate has remained steady, while falling amongst employees.*

In any debate about Health and Safety, you would think that such changes, would play a major role in the discussion of whether regulation was worthwhile, even if the first task is to question whether regulation was a cause or a coincidence for low injury and sickness rates.

But we don’t get that.

Instead we get a debate in which populist millionaire PR men use myths peddled by populist millionaire broadcasters to tell other people that they’re better off without protections at work. 

Shame, really. 


* To be honest, I’m not entirely comfortable with making too much of the fatalites data. The 2008/9 figures are much lower than recent years, and I suspect that this is as much to do with lower rates of construction work (the biggest killer)  in a recession as anything . However, death rates at work are showing a steady, gradual decline over years, so the general point remains true.

24 Responses to “Elfin Safety.”

  1. Brian Hughes

    It isn’t (generally) the legislation that’s at fault but the demented way it’s interpreted by ultra-cautious English people.

    There’s an awful streak of ‘not wanting to do anything that might draw attention to us’ in the English which, when coupled with a jobsworth tendency and an unhealthy belief in urban myths, occasionally leads to the sorts of silly things that Dave mentioned.

    Of course he’s played the politicians’ and journalists’ favourite trick of quoting the exception as though it were the rule. Easy to do in a land of, for example, half a million or so teachers. One of them is almost certain to be sufficiently daft or frightened to fret too much about conquers.

    I have a nice warm feeling of déjà vu – little William Hague started such bandwagon leaping when his 2001 campaign started unravelling…

  2. Luke Waterfield

    As a sailing instructor I can’t say the ‘elf and safety does any harm to the sport.

    Lots that can go wrong and people can theoretically get seriously hurt, but it rarely does because the paperwork we do first ensures we’ve always got a plan ready for when things go tits up.

  3. Huw Clayton

    I agree with Brian – at least partially. Unfortunately the “demented way it’s interpreted” is generally due to insurance policies rather than the HSE, who want to minimize exposure to such claims. The HSE’s aim is to reduce matters to “a reasonable degree of risk commensurate with the task at hand”, but IC’s want “no chance you’ll have a loophole to sue us” degrees of risk, which is not the same thing.

    While I would also agree with much of what Hopi says, speaking as somebody who intends to vote Conservative to get Brown out ASAP, it doesn’t quite give all the story. There is one classic example of where H&S has gone mad – the railways. Huge amounts of money for better equipment, new practices costing fortunes to devise and administer, and endless man-hours on training, are all expended. The net result is that deaths on the railways are at an all-time low.

    Which is a good thing on the surface. But – and this is the snag – it makes rail travel very expensive, because all this has to be paid for. Which means that people who might have gone by rail now go by road. And how much more dangerous is road travel than rail travel? How many people died on the roads because of over-cautious H&S on the railways? We don’t know – because there is no data. All I can tell you is that about 150 lives a year are saved on the railways as a result of new health and safety policy.

    I wonder how often that could be replicated – somebody not changing a lightbulb because it requires the use of a ladder, so somebody tripped and had a fall instead? Or a heavy object left to be moved later that had an adverse effect on somebody else (hospitals are notorious hotbeds of this syndrome – suppose a resuscitation unit is not in the right place when someone has a heart attack)?

    That’s the other side of the equation, and I think it does need addressing, albeit in a more grown-up way than either main party seems willing to do.

    Apologies for such a long comment.

    • Brian Hughes

      Safety has always been a high priority on railways – I worked for BR before the HSE existed (yes I’m dreadfully old). It’s driven in a large part by the understandably hysterical reaction of the public and its media (since ca 1830) to accidents and especially fatalities – in contrast the fact that there were 2,538 people killed on the UK roads in 2008 was presented as good news because the number was “so low”.

      I’ve no idea what proportion of the cost of running our trains is due to excessive safety measures, I’d guess not much. Alas railways are pretty expensive anyway.

      And I suspect that it’s mankind rather than just its political parties that isn’t quite grown up enough yet for a ‘lets make the railways a bit cheaper by making them a bit more dangerous’ discussion…

      PS Huw’s comment that he “intends to vote Conservative to get Brown out” reminds me of Hilaire Belloc’s injunction to “always keep a-hold of Nurse for fear of finding something worse”!

      PPS Sorry ’bout such a long reply

  4. AB

    What Huw says is interesting and also rather depressing, because one of the good features of UK H&S was that it generally avoided a US-style culture of endless litigation by having a tripartite system – the Robens system – by which workers and management worked out safety codes by negotiation and they were enforced by an official inspectorate. This meant you tended to get quite balanced H&S legislation, because most workers don’t want obsessive procedural finickiness either and realised its effect on job creation. Tripartite models (the NEDC and all that quasi-corporatist jive) hardly ever worked in the UK for various reasons, not least the dysfunctional nature of the trade union movement, but this was the one area they did. And both Tory and Labour governments supported it.

    Actually the model was copied and probably improved elsewhere: http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/misc/pinreport.pdf.

    But we appear to have imported a culture of insurance under threat of personal injury litigation, I presume from the US. And AFAICS, as Huw says, that just causes employers to err on the side of obsessive risk aversion, or at least to behave in a legally defensive way. Given the impact of personal injury cases, it’s not even clear to me that it would make a lot of difference if the government took its foot off the regulatory pedal – so this might be a case of ambulance-chasing solicitors gone mad rather than the oppressive arm of the state. But I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not sure of the relative contributions of statute and tort. Anyone?

  5. newmania

    Tolkein had a near breakdown when his American publisher translated Elven into Elfin. Imagine the temptation though.

    Anyway back to bashing Hopi .Funding for health and Safety has been very poor lately actually , are you sure you are making the right case . You want more deaths don’t you not less?
    By crass populism, ,you seem to mean incidents that resonate with people’s experience of the micro managing state . I speak as man who just volunteered to be Father Christmas by the way ( this very eve ) , for the PTA…. Ho ho ho ho ho , they said , not so fast there , they said .Many are the checks to be done ….” But you know me ?” , I said, echoing so many others . Idiotic of course but it keeps someone employed and lets the rest us all know who we work for .
    I have no doubt you would like to keep the “debate’ focussed on the Health and safety Departments Promo Brochure and its New Labour style stats . What about the 3000 Ilfracombe people sitting in front of giant screen of a bonfire ,the Torbay Palm Trees taken down in case they injured someone, the clown told to stop blowing bubbles, Ms. Val Temple ordred to remove Robin and Miss Piggy cakes because they impied the presence of Robin and Pigmeat . Yes I have a thousand more but I can also quote to you my own experience of Nursery and School. which is, if anything, even worse than the headlines and ,my god ,the waste of money its obscene ! ! Ask a real person Hopi , just one !

    You see its not just Elven Safety , its the whole bossy booted nanny knows best infantilising contempt for tax paying adults who though they were the dog not the tail . Most people Hopi are not interested where one ends and another begins .
    The odd thing is that New Labour have themselves worried about it . Ed Balls demanded that children be allowed to face naked conkers . Gordon Brown asked the Better Regulation Commission to produce a more rounded document presenting Public Risk . Ah dear what happened to that ? Our own dotty Norman Baker is always on about the absurd results the big state he supports … go figure . It was the BRC who produced “Risk Responsibility and Regulation” . What happened about that Hopi ? You should know , what happened the realisation by New Labour that over regulation was harming our Economy . Not only that it is harming the human spirit .
    Only in America would you get sued for failing to say your house was haunted , only in America would you get £1500,000 for tripping on unwept leaves or seek damages for a chair that makes flatulent noises except these are all UK examples . We seem to have invented a malevolent hybrid with the worst of the US litigious culture and the European bossy booted Bureaucracy as well .

    As AB is confused , as usual .On the specific issue of Health and Safety at Work it is Statute Law ie Employments Legislation that informs the legal environment not general Tort . The Liability of the Employer is virtually strict Liability and might as well be Workers Comp as it in the US and elsewhere . It is a leap of faith I can only admire to suppose that the box tickers that pester Contractors ( who as you rightly say do the dying ) do any good , they are not there Hop old son, they GO AWAY ….. I can think of a thousand reasons why conditions have improved mostly driven by the Insurance Industry better technology (New Plant has a ten year turnover remember ).I can sell you a soft wear package which takes Employees and subbies through modules tracks their virtual signatures and ends up being giant Health and Safety waiver of responsibility . You have no idea , what goes on .
    I don’t think actual workplace conditions are the main issue here though , it’s the general sense that we are no longer allowed to think for ourselves , assume our own risks and be free responsible adults .


  6. CS Clark

    In his speech, Cameron talked about a culture where ‘behind every accident there is someone who is personally culpable… someone who must pay.’ Funny, then, that he can’t accept unhelpful uses of health and safety and perlitikal korectnez gawn mahd (he said, channeling the shade of Sadie Smith) as accidents, the sort of occasional overreaches by a few zealous fools or improperly trained worthies that will always happen, and instead has to blame, er, ‘a stultifying blanket of bureaucracy, suspicion and fear.’

    PS – sorry about the partisan and hackish nature of the reply.
    PPS – sorry about predicting that his answer to ‘We see it in our schools, which are sent nearly 4,000 pages of emailed guidance each year.’ will be to use a smaller font size.

  7. newmania

    perlitikal korectnez gawn mahd

    One of the things I notice about this subject is the barely hidden class contempt the ruling class show for their inferiors. Is this supposed to be the accent of a “Poor ” person Mr. Clark?
    I should imagine much the same sort of mimicry went on in amongst the weary civil servants charged with organising the Raj.

    • CS Clark

      It’s fairly common to use phonetic spelling, phrases run together, paronomasial rewording etc. to mock people who are, in your opinion, simply parroting phrases (does ‘political correctness gone mad’ mean the speaker is happy with sane political correctness?). And one can do so without mocking a particular class. For example, elf & safety isn’t about being mean-spirited about some people dropping initial aitches. If anything, I read it as a Clarkson voice, and he’s hardly short on funds.

      Still, I’m sorry if you are offended, although I did think that sort of umbrage-taking was more the province of NuLabore.

      • newmania

        perlitikal korectnez gawn mahd

        Why would I be offended ? Its just one of those little ironies one enjoy s. You are obviously thinking of someone whose low social class means they have no understanding of the difficulties a highly paid Public Sector Professional faces. Fair enough.
        ‘Elf and Safety’ was exactly about being mean to people who drop aitches . It was directed at the Street warrior and /or Lambeth socials worker still much in evidence in London’s Labour Empire .Skoolz and `ospitalz as well .

        You are mocking people of the sort who become taxi drivers. Good for you .In the Guardian today there is more of the same . What I like is the delicious suggestion of the emphasised first syllable , that the ghastly prole is unused to long words at all !
        Of course that is in essence the Big State case , that people are unable to run their lives so I wouldn’t be ashamed of a certain condescension .

  8. ron

    I bet the cheap populism which sen talks about would be like gold dust if it could be sprinkled over Downing Street.

    Was Cameron talking about H&S at work in general, or was he alluding to the spread of risk aversity, politcal correctness, and ever-increasing state nannying – all things that any right-minded person would welcome a debate on? Maybe not.

    I like this link –

    “Where Clarkson leads, so follows Cameron”.

    Aahh cheap populism – works so well when it reinforces your own prejudices.

  9. paulinlancs


    The big problem, if you read the speech in full, is that he does indeed make ample reference to H&S at work in general, and then proceeds to conflate this with what you call the ‘spread of risk aversity’, thus opening the way for Lord Young’s review to be a catch all ‘forensic examination’, but one for which the brief is explicitly biased in favour not just of combatting risk aversion but also perfectly legitimate H&S controls, the beneficial effects of which Hopi has set out above.

  10. stephen

    As someone who lost a Grandfather as a result of exposure to asbestos at work – I shall always remember that it was the Tories (aided in no small part by Cyril Smith) who for many years denied that asbestos was a killer, and then failed for an equally long period failed to take steps to ban asbestos and sat idly by while the insurance companies avoided their obligations .

    And now surprise surprise the Tory leader is suddenly taking an interest in Health and Safety only when it relates to regulatory overkill. Perhaps, an apology for all his Party’s past crimes is due first, before he starts indulging in cheap PR games.

  11. stephen

    It would also be interesting to note how many of the silly Health and Safety edicts arising from stupid misinterpretations of current regulations are actually driven by the requirements of insurance companies who as always are interested in taking premiums but providing the minimum (of coverage from risk) in return (or stealing as it is more usually called). More than a few is my guess. Funny, that Dave doesn’t want to take them on!

  12. Liberanos

    I don’t think Cameron was against the idea of people being healthy or safe.

    He was against others deciding on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that they were in danger. And he most certainly has a point.

    Being in election mode has dangers for both sides.

    I hope the Labour party is not so stupid as to underestimate the electorate’s genuine concerns on these admitedly populist matters.

  13. newmania

    in taking premiums but providing the minimum (of coverage from risk) in return (or stealing as it is more usually called

    Insurers have been the main effective driver of real improvements not so much to avoid claims but driven by competition for underwriting profits . This works well , for this reason real high risk areas like Noise , dangerous machinery and Contracting especially high risk areas are targeted while low risk environments like an office can have their Hand S Manual in a box and never look at it
    Insurance is a good thing for many reasons and this may account for the fact that this New labour Government tax it at 5% in one of their many stealth taxes .

    Sadly they have also thrown us into the EU market for services which has been a disaster . Most high risk Premium is now written by un –rated security notably Quinn Direct .

  14. stephen


    Several times when I have challenged silly/over fussy interpretation of Health and Safety regs. I have been told that it is something that the insurance company insists on or that the insurance company would use non compliance as a reason for invalidating cover when it came to paying out on genuine claims. I’m not clear whether you are saying these are just isolated cases and insurance companies really don’t behave in this manner – and hence are not a part of the problem?

  15. David

    I guess that all those who are dying of asbestosis and other related diseases are pleased that David Cameron thinks that they should be exposed to the risks that caused their illnesses.

  16. newmania

    Several times when I have challenged silly/over fussy interpretation of Health and Safety regs. I have been told that it is something that the insurance company insists on or that the insurance company would use non compliance as a reason for invalidating cover when it came to paying out on genuine claims.

    If you do not like the Policy you have bought try to buy a better one there is vast and highly competitive market. If the Policy conditions stipulate compliance with certain precautions which are not complied with then it is not a genuine claim is it ?
    They repond to the legal enviroment they do not make it . Would you prefer to be un insured ?What you have stumbled on is that regulation increases costs , those costs are felt by purchasers of Liability Protection, this cost hits consumers and participants .

    I have an idea …


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