Building Health and Safety – is it really as simple as ABC?


Stung by the widespread public belief that ‘elf ‘n safety’ legislation is excessive and damaging, the Health & Safety Executive has been working hard in recent years to dispel what it sees as myths (often promulgated by the media).

Having vigorously defended its corner by reacting to an endless series of press and TV stories with its ‘Myth Buster’ campaign, it is now launching an initiative that seeks to get SMEs to use new HSE online tools that are, it says, “specifically designed to help them get their risk management right.”


The laudable aim of ‘HSE ABC’ is to help business owners and managers to see the wood from the trees: to realise that health and safety is about taking a proportionate approach to risk, and dealing with it appropriately. So common sense actions should never be ditched in favour of bizarre ‘over the top’ tests, regulations or prohibitions.

In other words, if it seems ludicrous to follow a particular instruction, it probably is. HSE is saying that businesses only need to take ‘reasonable steps’ in their management of serious risk to workers.

Of course, their degree of success in turning around the current beliefs will depend on how simply and well they communicate their new message. Many business people will point out that it is precisely the mass of long-winded laws and regulations, stemming from British and European legislators over the years, that has led to the current situation. The Government’s Red Tape Challenge and the Lofstedt Reports have been highly critical of bureaucracy in health and safety, and if HSE ABC does have an effect it will be a welcome step towards the ‘bonfire of legislation’ that was called for by the Prime Minister.

HSE carried out a small business survey before announcing their new initiative. Some of the salient points that emerged from its results are –

  • Nearly one-third of firms were classified as ‘hopeful-have-a-go’s’, knowing they should do something but not clear where to start or how to do the right thing
  • 11% thought they needed to call in a certified electrician to test electrical appliances annually
  • 22 per cent felt they required specialist health and safety consultants

The need for safety consultants

HSE, from its comments ,seems to think that the desire to use safety consultants is wrong and unnecessary. However, the survey must have covered all types of small business, and many are engaged in such sectors as manufacturing, technical, agricultural, recycling, primary industries and construction – all of which face greater than average risks and are not to be compared with the office-based operations which HSE seems to be focusing on. It makes great play of cases such as the company that carried out a risk assessment for using a tape measure, and the one that wrote out guidelines for how to use a staircase.

Professional safety consultants like McCormack Benson Health & Safety are obviously glad that many firms see the need for their services, and indeed their construction safety speciality is based on the fact that principal contractors and sub-contractors alike are mostly classed as small and medium enterprises, operating in a risky sector where the consequences of getting it wrong are far from trivial. The consultancy’s mission is to assist firms while working with the HSE to ensure compliance, in a reasonable and proportionate way.

John Allan, the National Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, commented on the “fear factor” that makes businesses adopt unnecessary health and safety procedures that cost time and money – and it is obviously good if this new online tool helps them to “sense check compliance” and avoid “gold plating” health and safety measures.

For employers, the best way to judge is to visit the resource at and judge for themselves. For construction companies, dealing daily with very serious health and safety issues like appointing CDM Coordinators, working at height and in confined spaces, carrying out risk assessments and writing new method statements for every aspects of a build, it may seem not to be primarily focused on their particular needs.