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.