Study uncovers the reasons behind health and safety myths

New research from the University of Exeter uncovers the complex range of factors that contribute to the incorrect use of health and safety.

The study which was conducted by Dr Claire Dunlop a senior lecturer in politics at the University of Exeter, analyses the first two years of submissions to the Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) Myth Busters Challenge Panel (MBCP) – 272 cases in all. Set up in April 2012, the Panel allows members of the public to challenge incorrect or over the top decisions taken in the name of health and safety by non-regulators – such as employers, health and safety consultants, insurance companies, leisure companies, retailers, schools and so on. It concludes that the rise of health and safety myths in the UK cannot be attributed to a single cause or combination of causes. Rather, the research uncovers a complex range of factors that recur in the incorrect use of health and safety.

The following is an overview of some of the study’s key findings:

Who do health and safety myths affect? Four main groups of people bear the brunt of health and safety myths: consumers (32%); children (20%); employees (13%) and citizens accessing public services (12%). The impact on children is an important finding; children are frequently prevented from engaging in activities in educational and leisure settings on the grounds of health and safety that are found to be baseless.

What are people being protected from? The largest category of cases involve everyday objects (32%) – most frequently, spills from hot or cold drinks, play-related concerns and ladders. Over a fifth of the cases concern objects related to children or dealing with hygiene, animals or taboo issues such as drugs. The well-known conkers case being a typical example.

What are the reasons for these myths? The rise of health and safety myths in the UK cannot be attributed to a single cause or combination of causes, but the cases submitted to the HSE Myth-Busters Panel do have recurring themes which relate to weaknesses that exist in three aspects of organisations’ capacity:

  • Problems relating to administrative pressures are prevalent. Particularly important is evidence of deficiencies in staff training (39% of cases), fear of legal action (28%) and avoidance of economic costs (25%). Analysis suggests that fear of legal action and over-interpretation of health and safety may be linked – the classic case of a council banning hanging baskets falls into this category.
  • Gaps in analytical capacity also recur. Specifically, a generic ‘better safe than sorry’ risk averse mind-set shows up in over half the cases (60%) and is especially strong in instances of poor customer service. One typical example is that of a cyclist being told to remove their chained-up bicycle from a pedestrian area. An incorrect assumption that regulations exist in an area is found in nearly one third of cases (32%) and is linked in particular to myths that demonstrate an over-interpretation of health and safety. Take for example the concern that standing on an office chair to put up Jubilee bunting constituted a breach of health and safety regulations.
  • Weaknesses in organisations’ capacity to communicate recur in the erroneous use of health and safety. Over a third of the cases involve an individual who could be blamed for an alternative decision (37%) and may be using health and safety to avoid confrontation. Another intriguing communication issue is found in cases where there are concerns about aesthetics (29%). For example, the misguided use of health and safety to enforce school uniform policy and ban frilly socks.

“Identifying these trends will enable the HSE to develop more focussed communications strategies that tailor advice and raise awareness in specific sectors and about particular populations”, Dr Dunlop said. “It will also enable them to support organisations to address the weaknesses in capacity that make health and safety myths more likely.”

The study was supported by the University of Exeter’s Link Fund and College of Social Sciences and International Studies discretionary impact fund. The report is the result of independent research conducted by the University of Exeter. However, the HSE are supportive of the research and value its findings.