Common Sense on H&S

In the wake of the inquest into the London bombing, Sir Paul Stephenson has incurred the displeasure of the Police Federation. The gist of his remarks struck me as being sensible and pragmatic. He posed the question; should the health and safety laws apply to the emergency services? Which is a valid question given stories that pop up in the press on a fairly regular basis where emergency personnel were not allowed to carry out a rescue due to health and safety concerns. How much of this is really the case is moot, of course. What matters is that the perception has pervaded the public consciousness.

The answer to the question is; yes and no. Yes, because the employer should always endeavour to provide safe systems of work, safe places of work and adequate training and supervision. No, because the emergency services, by the very nature of their work engage in high levels of risk.

Actually, no is the wrong answer –  it’s more a case of taking a pragmatic approach to risk and risk management. Anyone joining the emergency services recognises that their exposure to risk will be greater than if they took a nice nine-to-five in an office. They do, however, have a reasonable expectation that their employer will seek to minimise that risk to as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). In this, they can expect to receive vigorous training and be provided with suitable equipment. I wouldn’t expect a firefighter to enter a burning building without breathing apparatus, but I would expect them to enter that building to carry out a rescue fully kitted out –  even though they place their lives at risk. Risk is part of the job.

Stevenson raised the issue of risk assessment when he said:

“I don’t want to criticise them or to be doing a risk assessment on every occasion,” he said.

Actually, they do carry out a risk assessment on every occasion. What they don’t do is a paper exercise. Every time we encounter risk, we weigh it up before making a decision. It may be a matter of seconds, but we do it even so. The outcome may well be that the risk, though high, is one we are prepared to take. No, there may not be a nice little Excel spreadsheet written out demonstrating how the risk was identified and managed before the task was undertaken before a police officer steps onto a frozen pond to rescue a child –  but there will always be a risk assessment conducted and minimisation options considered. Every time.

One day, maybe we can move on from the bureaucracy and mystique that surrounds risk and recognise that, actually, we are pretty good at it and the emergency services personnel, by the very nature of their jobs will be more practiced than most. They just don’t write it down and shouldn’t need to –  and the law doesn’t require it.

9 comments for “Common Sense on H&S

  1. May 9, 2011 at 8:40 am

    You get that in teaching as well, it’s called a “dynamic assessment”. But even that has to be in a context of preparation and follow-up.

    If you want to be able to handle violent or unruly children safely and effectively, there is a recognised training programme (Team Teach), mandatory refreshers every couple of years to remain licensed, child-specific risk assessments and handling plans, and a rigorous post-incident reporting and recording system.

    It can still end with a court case, and you’ll have to show that what you did was in the child’s interests or to safeguard others (or – possibly – to prevent serious disruption to learning and/or significant damage to property).

    There will be instances where you just have to let them get on with trashing the room – e.g. when you don’t think you can handle them without the danger of injuring them or yourself. You just take the other kids out and deal with little Jimmy when he’s stopped.

    I wouldn’t want to go back to teachers hurling board rubbers, clipping kids across the head, punching them in the stomach (yes, really)… but now we have wigs, robes and Black Marias hovering around us constantly.

    What we have here, as in so many other areas, is the replacement of custom (reasonable expectation, shared values) by law, and the latter, though lucrative for practitioners, can never do the job. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve understood the Latin phrase “leges et mores” and realized the importance of the latter.

  2. May 9, 2011 at 8:43 am

    Well put. It must also be noted that training and paper excercises are carried out on a ‘one size fits all’ basis and fail to take into account unique features os a situation.

  3. SimonF
    May 9, 2011 at 9:20 am

    There is one part of the risk assessment that isn’t well understood or often discussed – not to make the situation worse or put more lives at risk.

    In the case at hand it is pointless the first responders rushing down the tube if all it means is that they get injured themselves and also need rescuing. I’m not saying that was the case, just part of the risk.

    In some situations it could mean securing the area first and moving other people away from danger. There may be a risk of secondary explosions for fur; tanks or even secondary bombs.

    I’m not saying this means do nothing, just that the trained emergency services have to make that part of the risk assessment and shouldn’t be pilloried if they make securing the area their initial assessment, even if others disagree.

    • May 12, 2011 at 8:33 am

      When I trained Rail Incident Officers, the first piece of advice was; don’t get involved. Assess the situation and then start to plan the response. Done’ become another casualty.

  4. May 9, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Best common sense I have read on the subject in a long time.

  5. May 9, 2011 at 11:14 am

    Underlines the need for scenario planning.

  6. May 10, 2011 at 5:10 am

    I carry out a Risk Assesment every time I cross the road.

    • May 12, 2011 at 8:35 am

      That’s usually the example I use.

      • May 12, 2011 at 9:53 am

        Be interested to get your take on the guy sacked for (allegedly)breaching safety rules by removing a trolly from the tracks..?

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