The festive season is a time for responsible fun and not officialdom, says the Health and Safety Executive. It is a good time of year to reflect on lessons learned and priorities for the year ahead without being a health and safety kill-joy, finds Jon Herbert.

Christmas myths?

Test yourself: are any of these statements true, under existing legislation?

  1. Christmas decorations need to be put up by a competent person.
  2. Christmas lights must be PAT tested every year before use.
  3. Carol singer groups must obtain a permit from the local council to be able to knock on the public’s doors.
  4. Snowballs on work grounds are banned under health and safety legislation.
  5. Clearing community pavements of snow and ice can leave you open to prosecution if someone falls on them and is injured.
  6. Health and safety legislation means that artificial versions of Christmas trees in shops and malls are safest.
  7. Second-hand toys are no longer accepted in charity drives.
  8. The traditional coins can no longer be baked into Christmas puddings.

Answer: nope, none of them are true.

Over the past few years, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has scotched many Christmas myths, where occupational health and safety regulations were used as an excuse to put the damper on legitimate festive fun at work (see the HSE website for details).

As the HSE has already pointed out, “Health and safety exists to provide safeguard against people being seriously injured or made unwell at work, not to hamper fun activities.” Its view is that time spent on “trivial risks” increases the chances that important risks will be missed. The HSE explains that the health and safety focus remains on “finding ways to make things happen, not reasons for stopping them”, with sensible action to “tackle risks that cause real harm and suffering”.

This means that health and safety regulations taken out of context cannot be used as an excuse simply to save money on office decorations. But there is sensible advice for employers and employees. And, as the icing on the Christmas cake, many of the good H&S practices developed at work can be applied at home for Christmas.

How good have we been this year?

There is, of course, always room for improvement. The most recent HSE statistics for 2018 show that 1.4 million people suffered from a work-related illness, 2595 mesothelioma deaths were caused by past work exposure to asbestos, while 144 workers were killed at work. There were also 555,000 injuries at work, according to the Labour Force Survey; 71,062 injuries to employees were reported under RIDDOR. In addition, 30.7 million working days were lost due to work-related illness and workplace injury. The total cost of injuries and ill health in 2016–17 was estimated to be £15 billion.

Christmas workplace tips: decorations, lights, toys and trees

One of the myths the HSE has been keen to dispel over past Christmases is that companies can stop staff putting up decorations on the basis of health and safety regulations, or that it has to be done by a “qualified” person. This is not true, the HSE says. However, it adds that it makes sense to provide employees with, for example, suitable step ladders — balancing on wheelie-chairs is a definite no-no.

Many businesses also believe they must test Christmas lights each year. Again, untrue, although sensible precautions such as checking for obvious damage are advisable, of course. Incidentally, one other myth that occurs periodically is the claim that Santa must wear a seatbelt on his sleigh at work — again, the regulations do not require this.

There are also no health and safety rules preventing the donation of good second-hand toys as part of charity initiatives, even though organisers are likely to want to ensure that they are clean and in good condition. However, “there may be valid insurance or compensation issues involved”, says the HSE.

Another misunderstanding is that legislation prevents and controls decorations in shops, malls and town centres, including the replacement of traditional Christmas trees with artificial alternatives. Nor is it correct that shops must remove courtesy chairs to ensure a healthy and safe environment — common sense should suggest where they are best placed.

Sounds of Christmas, snowballs, snow-clearing and puddings

Few people are likely to particularly object to the dulcet tones of carol singers. However, the HSE says it has heard over past years of insurance companies producing comprehensive health and safety guides for singers and parish councils ordering them to apply for permits over concerns that householders could be upset. This is not a regulatory requirement, although simple advice, such as not singing in the road or carrying large amounts of money, makes good sense.

Other inaccurate stories that the HSE reports hearing regularly is that children can’t throw snowballs, and swimmers are banned from taking traditional winter open-water swims, all in the name of health and safety. Volunteering to clear community pavements during icy conditions does not carry the risk of being sued under health and safety rules either. Once again, the HSE urges a commonsense approach, agreeing that “clearing snow and ice… makes it easier for people to get about”. It adds that the HSE “is focussed on the real safety risks at work, and we think it is ridiculous that people should feel prevented from helping others, through a fear of being held responsible for an accident”.

Taking the safety message home: toys, cards and candles

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (ROSPA) believes that the same reasonable precautionary principles apply at home. For example, it makes sense to buy gifts from reputable sources meeting standards such as the Toys (Safety) Regulations 2011. Buying batteries for toys removes any temptation to remove and use batteries from smoke alarms. Small parts, button batteries and burst balloons can be a choking hazard.

ROSPA adds the reminder that cards and decoration should be kept away from heat sources, light fittings and very certainly burning candles. Remember to extinguish candles before going out or to bed. Buying new Christmas lights ensures that they will meet higher safety standards. They shouldn’t be switched on until the tree is decorated. Children must not play with lights and, again, lights must be turned off before leaving the house.

Too many cooks for safety

The company canteen as well as the home kitchen may be catering for larger numbers around Christmas. Adequate time should be taken to prepare and cook meals to avoid accidents from hot fat, boiling water and sharp knives. Keep extraneous help and hands out of the kitchen — too many cooks can compromise safety if not the broth — and wipe up spills quickly. Have scissors on hand to open packages, don’t be tempted by the shortcut of trying to use a knife.

As in the working environment, an objective risk is trailing cables and wires, particularly if there is a rush to connect up new gadgets and appliances. Always read the instructions! Falls are the most common accidents. Keeping clutter to a minimum, stairs well-lit and all areas free from obstacles is important, especially with an increase in guests and visitors.

Party time

It goes without saying that planning New Year fireworks parties well in advance, and following the Firework Safety Code, plus arranging events in ways that prevent employees or visitors drinking and driving are absolute priorities.

Published by Croneri on 13 December 2018



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