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The myth of the 'health and safety monster'

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It is a fresh start to the New Year and the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron, has already outlined where he will be leading our Country over the next 12 months.

One aspect of his speech yesterday particularly caught my attention; his fixation on the “health and safety monster” that he says plagues our country. David Cameron has promised an overhaul to health and safety in the UK and has advised that his government’s New Year resolution is to ‘kill off the health and safety culture for good’.

Perhaps the most concerning part of David Cameron’s speech was his view that building our economy up to strength would require a ‘real pioneering, risk-taking spirit’. While I can appreciate that taking risks is an important part of developing a business, this should not be at the expense of the safety of your workforce.

When considering David Cameron’s statement regarding health and safety in our country, here are some interesting statistics for you to consider; between 2003/04 and 2010/11, the number of nonfatal work-related accidents decreased from approximately 1,000,000 to 603,000 per year. That is a decrease in the annual number of reported accidents by nearly 400,000.

The Health and Safety Executive, the national independent watchdog for work-related health, reported that there were 171 fatal injuries at work in the UK 2010/11. This is equal to around 0.6 fatalities per one hundred thousand workers. Back in 1998, the number of work-related fatalities was almost triple this.

The Health and Safety Executive has noted that this supports a basic downward trend for the number of accident-related fatalities, with the UK consistently holding one of the lowest work-related fatality rates in all of Europe.

Cameron talks about the chain of ‘blame-recrimination-compensation’ spiralling out of control, and how businesses are being subjected to legal proceedings for accidents that were unavoidable. However, many accidents at work are easily preventable by the companies involved. How is it wrong for someone to seek compensation if they are injured and put out of pocket for an accident that was not their fault and that could have been avoided? If someone has suffered a loss through no fault of their own then they have a right to compensation to put them back in the position they would have been had the accident not happened.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health' have condemned David Cameron’s comments on health and safety. Richard Jones, who is Head of Policy at the IOSH, said, "Labeling workplace health and safety as a monster is appalling and unhelpful, as the reason our legislative system exists is to prevent death, injury or illness at work, protecting livelihoods in the process. The problem identified by the government's own reviews is not the law, but a rather exaggerated fear of being sued, fed by aggressive marketing."

The exaggerated fear is certainly noticeable in Cameron’s statement that £5,000 legal fees are common for a £500 injury claim. This is at best an extremely isolated incident, and I have certainly not come across a similar situation in my legal career.

One thing that can be supported by figures is that health and safety is improving within our county. But while statistics do show a continuing decline year on year for work related accidents in the UK, many people still suffer horrific injuries and the compensation they receive gives them a chance to get their life back. Cameron needs to tread very carefully when making amendments to laws that are in place to protect people. If he truly intends to “slash the red tape” that wraps up our health and safety law as much as he claims, then it is concerning to see whether this will have a negative effect on an injured person’s access to justice.

Yesterday, Cameron told ITV News, "I would rather be a one-term prime minister who does the right thing than a two-term prime minister who does the wrong thing."

Let’s hope he does the right thing.

By personal injury specialist, Matthew Dootson