Challenging the misuse of safety for political ends

Managing partner, Park Health and Safety Partnership

The UK election has confounded many predictions – even former Labour cabinet ministers had feared the landslide that polls suggested when the prime minister called the election. 

As a result of the lack of a working majority for any party, we have entered a period of political uncertainty.

Without wishing to sound parochial at a time when the future of the National Health Service, provision of decent housing for young people and many other crucial issues are on the agenda, the impact of big politics on how we pursue safer and healthier workplaces is worthy of consideration.

Politics has always affected how we work. The fundamental change in safety and health law in the UK in the 1970s was introduced by a Labour government implementing a report commissioned by the previous Conservative administration. It was with all-party support that the bill that became the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 passed through parliament.

This was a period in which “one-nation” conservatism and a pragmatic social democracy operated in tandem, as they had done in developing and strengthening the welfare state for three decades from the end of the second world war.

In recent years, the banking crash, the period of austerity that followed, and the economic squeezing of the “just about managing” have fractured such informal partnerships, not just in the UK but in the US and elsewhere. 

Politicians of all stripes have been known to abuse as well as use safety and health for their own ends

That is the background to the repeated challenge to remove burdens on business, to cut red tape, to reduce the legislative burden. But that drive is surely on hold for a while – because no group or faction is in control.

Of course, politicians of all stripes have been known to abuse as well as use safety and health for their own ends. I was reminded of this when discussing an event called Palestine Expo being held this month in London. There are people who are opposed to Palestinians organising and speaking together. Some of those who may have legitimate reasons to oppose Palestinian self-determination cited safety and health concerns in calls to cancel the event.

Safety and health considerations are valid for defining the levels of stewarding, security, access and egress and ticketing arrangements, but should not be a smokescreen for an attempted political ban.

We should always be on the lookout for abuse of our legitimate work to reduce accidents and ill-health, by politicians or anyone else.

But politics and safety and health appear inseparable at the moment. The media chatterers suggest that we are aiming for a softer rather than a harder Brexit, that more of the EU approach will be embodied in the UK’s future strategy than was envisioned before the election.

This may mean that our health and safety legal framework, even the existence of a non-privatised and properly funded Health and Safety Executive, is safer than before.

These and other issues will be debated in a special session at the IOSH conference in November, live and online, and we are hoping that we will hear the voice of professionals who believe that, rather than a burden on business, good safety and health management is an enabler of better performance.  


Lawrence Waterman OBE CFIOSH is managing partner at the Park Health and Safety Partnership, and was formerly head of health and safety for the London Olympic Delivery Authority. He is past president of IOSH.

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