Risk. How about a little more in our lives?

Risk. How about a little more in our lives?


More in the ongoing and entertaining developments in the UK health and safety arena. There is a refreshing campaign by safety authorities, politicians and the insurance industry. They want to stop “jobsworths” who give health and safety a bad name.

conkers riskBureaucrats have been hiding behind “health and safety” to avoid personal responsibility or the effort of thinking constructively.

In a nutshell, those stories about banning conkers and ice slides in playgrounds, Santas having to wear seatbelts on their floats, science lessons being dumbed down, councils banning hanging baskets: They’re not due to the Health & Safety Executive (HSE), or insurance companies. They are due to bureaucrats who are too scared to make risk based decisions.

In January this year, PM Gordon Brown promised to fight this “nanny state” culture. He has set up the Risk and Regulation Advisory Council, and one of its first tasks will be to examine “systemic risk aversion”.

Risk aversion

Risk aversion includes the attitude to any possibility of an accident, which has led councils and similar authorities to avoid or prohibit activities that have only a small potential for harm. Even when it could be considered part of every day life.

Fear of high-cost compensation for accidents has reduced kids taking part in adventure and outdoor activities. A report produced by a watchdog group two years ago found self-reliance and adventure were being stifled by “knee-jerk” legislation. They found the State’s attitude to allowing people to take risks was “defensive and disproportionate”. It produced “regulatory overkill”.

In the context of New Zealand, it will take a lot of strong and balanced minds if we are to avoid overreacting to events. Injuries to thrill seeking tourists and the tragic Mangatepopo Gorge incident, for example. In the UK, a knee jerk reaction after a canoeing tragedy in which four teenagers drowned, resulted in something called the Adventure Activities Licensing Authority. The Authority required organisations running activities like white water rafting to get licences and undergo inspections. But while only 13 were refused licenses, 600 activity centres were forced to close by the costs of the new bureaucracy. The Authority was thankfully closed down earlier this year.

A more balanced approach

The policies of regulatory authorities and public watchdogs  is leading to a better balance.

In the UK, The Institute of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH), in an effort to publicise their stance, has entered a team to take part in the 2007 World Conker Championships. They also sponsored the event. The team aimed to combat their ‘bonkers about conkers’ reputation. This has seen children forced to wear goggles or the game banned. Cause: Misconceptions about health and safety regulations. Lisa Fowlie, president of IOSH, said: “Health and safety is sometimes used as an excuse – it’s easier to ban something than to find a way to let it go ahead.”

The UK Health and Safety Commission has been promoting “sensible risk management”. Further comments by Chairperson Judith Hackett towards the end of 2007 appear to imply that insurance companies are “scrooge-like”. However, the Association of British Insurers has hit back. They are concerned about “the propensity” for people to make personal injury claims and say it is not they who are stopping the fun.

The insurer’s story

The insurers’ version (which has a clear ring of truth), is that organisers just shy off. They ask questions, for example, about their public liability insurance. They want to know if they are covered if a sweet injured an eye while being thrown into the audience at a Christmas panto. If the answer is “no”, then it is still the organiser’s choice whether to go ahead with reasonable precautions. (One might think, for example, about using soft sweets). Instead, so many organisers and councils have a risk averse reaction and prohibit the activity instead. Insurers and safety authorities get the blame.

If you think this cannot happen in New Zealand, because we are “different” or because ACC deflects private insurance claims, just think: Remember when sweets were thrown at Santa Parades? It matters not that the reason for discontinuing was different, but that alternatives were not fully explored. So a popular, fun and traditional practise could not continue. The death of fireworks and threats about government controls on fatty foods are all part of the same thing: “No risk is the only acceptable risk”. Complete humbug. Imagine if cars and alcohol had just been invented and you went to the government regulator for approval. Don’t think that would succeed now. Progress would be stifled.

Myth of the month

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) in the UK is so enraged with the damage to its image that its website now runs a “myth of the month” slot on its website.

Recent choices include the banning of egg boxes from school craftwork for fear of spreading salmonella. Trapeze artists being obliged to wear hard hats. And the oldest chestnut of all – banning playground conker contests. None of them has any legal basis, so any such cases result from over-zealous bureaucrats.

Media interest

The media in the UK continues to run commentary and stories of political correctness in health and safety. None more so than the following extracts from Anne Johnstone, writing in Scotland’s The Herald this May:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this health and safety extremism is transforming our lives, and more especially the lives of our children, and not for the better. Nursery rhymes are full of accidents: Jack falls down and breaks his crown, Humpty Dumpty falls off the wall. My childhood was punctuated with minor mishaps: a fall from a climbing frame that cost two teeth, a knee still scarred by plummeting from a hollow tree. It never occurred to my parents to stop me doing these things because they rightly calculated that small injuries help children avoid bigger ones in the future. Part of growing up is learning to make the necessary risk-assessment every time we cross a road…..

……Recently, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents felt obliged to intervene in the debate to insist that children are being too cosseted and that real risk-taking in play is necessary to live fully and successfully. “A skinned knee or a twisted ankle in a challenging and exciting play environment is not just acceptable, it is a positive necessity,” said Rospa chief executive Tom Mullarkey, adding: “We need to prepare our children for a complex, dangerous world in which healthy, robust activity is more a national need than ever before.” …….

……….There are several serious points behind all this. The first is that, along with heavy-handed child-protection legislation, the clipboard mentality is deterring many people from doing voluntary work. Recent examples in my own family include my husband being faced with a 24-page health and safety form when he volunteered to help coach table tennis at our local primary school. At the time he had just decided against taking a group of cubs camping after being confronted by an even longer form and the prospect of a meeting with the “Night Away Coordinator”……

…….Most seriously of all, they distract attention from serious shortcomings of health and safety in the workplace that claim scores of lives each year. The chatter about over-the-top box-tickers obscures the real issue of hundreds of callous employers who cut corners on safety and a Health and Safety inspectorate that is too puny and underfunded to tackle them.”

In the New Zealand context, it was refreshing to hear Ross Scrymgeour, head of private Hereworth School in Havelock North, come out and promote rough play for boys. Essentially, his argument is as follows: (Extracted from the Dominion Post, 2 April 2008)

Ross believes that “bubble-wrapped” boys are missing out on rough and tumble in a “feminised” school system. It doesn’t allow them to let off steam. The banning of physical games like bullrush and murder-ball illustrates an approach to education that does not suit boys.

His boys-only school’s “play rough” philosophy made boys more attentive in class. It has taught them about physical boundaries.”Boys need to be exposed to this sort of thing,” Mr Scrymgeour said. “I’m not talking about brawls, or fights, but physicality. Even the meekest and mildest, when put in a group of their own ability, will get something out of that.

Hereworth is one of seven private boys’ schools in New Zealand. Sport is compulsory and supervised rough play encouraged. “It equips them for life’s knocks. It’s not fair to boys to let them avoid taking knocks.”

Joseph Driessen, who runs an international consultancy on boys’ education, agreed. “There’s a lot of research on this. Brain scan research shows boys actually need physical movement for their brains to operate properly.” Risk-taking raised adrenaline and testosterone to natural levels, he said.

Educational researcher Sarah Farquhar said she hoped Mr Scrymgeour was not criticised for his approach. “I’ve been arguing against the feminising of the education system for over 10 years. There’s this bubble-wrapping of children … and this removal of all risk-taking.”


No doubt there will be some denim skirted women with flat shoes and a mouthful of wasps who will shuffle their feet and shriek in protest. All due to their own very particular views on life.

We deviate, however, from the original thread, that being, safety is not about eliminating all risk, it is about taking sensible risk, in proportion to the potential consequences. Additionally, fun and laughter and life experience involves the presence of some unknowns and also some risk.

In the same tone as that now well-known alcohol consumption advert running at the moment:

“It’s not the safety rules, it’s the WAY we are using them”

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