I wholly welcome the thrust and spirit of the government's proposals and offer the comments and suggestions contained herein as refining influences. The fact that, in almost every review of serious events, common sense does not seem to have prevailed, is cause enough to doubt whether or not the highly prescriptive approaches taken in the UK are effective. On the other hand, generally speaking, the UK is a very safe place in which to live, work and travel and the attention brought upon health and safety matters is one of the reasons for that fact.
The comparative high levels of safety do cause us to ask, how much lighter can the legislative governing touch be? I tend to concur with Lord Young's conclusions that the current approaches are onerous but would wish to place some greater emphasis on the criminal elements of the law which are also relevant.
The report rightly identified the growing 'compensation culture' in which it always seems to be someone's liability that is the cause of events. The media frenzy which often typifies reporting is not helpful in this regard and a great deal could be done to better manage public expectations. The Fire Service, and its litigious history, is a good example of the culture in which it is automatically felt to be the employer's fault if anyone gets hurt, in any way, at work. In one sense, the fire sector's compensation culture is not growing - it has always been quite apparent.
This culture, and the consequent fear of it, is reinforced by the HSE's zealous prosecution and investigative approach to emergency incidents. Whilst it is all very well for 'Monday Morning referees' to adjudicate over whether or not the decisions taken at the time of a dynamic and developing emergency situation were wise, in my experience fire commanders make the best decisions they can to stabilise and make safe the incident. This is often with the barest minimum of information and a tense conflict between the safety of their crews and those they are trying to protect and rescue.
The ongoing inquiry, which highlights the horrific events of July 7, 2005 is demonstrable of that tension. The fire commanders (some of whom were criticised in the media) were taking normal steps to mitigate risk to their crews. Whilst this seemingly caused outrage by some, those officers were merely doing what they had been trained to do. As callous as it sounds, crews who are injured by a lack of risk assessment save no-one.
If fire officers are demonstrating the symptoms of a 'fear culture', which is seemingly in some way not aligned with public expectations and empathies, we should really be asking why? As understandable as the wish for firefighters to be brave heroes with no regard for their own safety may be, our legislative arrangements are such that this situation could not prevail without prosecutions of senior staff.
Fire services have in the past been criticised for providing 'insufficient information, instruction and training' - the consequent delivery of those elements inevitably creates some form of risk aversion. The knowledge that some other organisation in your sector got prosecuted for failure is a strong motivator. This is reinforced by the fact that HSE actions are taken as a sector signal - all fire and rescue services are expected to comply.
It is inescapable that, despite the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Act, employees rarely get prosecuted for failure to follow company guidance. Whilst this is understandable if we accept that prosecutions of this nature are brought to send messages, the unintended consequence is that (at least in the mindset of employee representatives) all employers are liable, in all circumstances, for any employee injury. This reinforces the fear which is noted within the public sector.
Read more in the next issue of FIRE magazine.
Posted: 16.29pm, 18.04.11
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