If you want workers to be safe on site, you have to get them to think for themselves. So, we need less bureaucracy and more reliance on our natural sense of danger, says Greg Verhoef

The recent publication of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) reminds me of the story of the man who had hired a car that developed a puncture only to find that there was no jack in the boot. On calling the hire company, he was told that health and safety did not allow for equipment to be supplied with the car or used by the driver but that they would send somebody to change it.

The authors of the 50 Dangerous Things, which started as a You Tube clip (which does include changing a tyre), believe that we do children harm if we never allow them to assess danger for themselves. No doubt you have your own favourite health and safety examples but I would like to explore some zany results of this government’s “rolling” heath & safety legislation.

I want to stay with the principle of individuals assessing danger for the moment; according to the Health and Safety Executive, there has been a sudden rise in construction fatalities, and more than half of the 13 deaths during October and November last year were the result of a fall from height. A senior safety figure says the increase should “ring alarm bells” across the industry – however, he adds that he has no idea why the figures have suddenly increased.

As a result of these appalling fatalities, the British Safety Industry Federation has called for more realistic safety equipment testing as well as a nationally accepted accreditation scheme for those working at height. As far as I can see from the press reports and surfing the internet, nobody has paused to consider alternative reasons for this increase.

In talking to my own health and safety officer and the supervisors who look after these kind of issues on our sites, I have come to the conclusion that a factor in some accidents is something known as “alpha sleep” (which I prefer to call “not thinking”). I’m sure that we have all at one time or another taken a journey by car, train or even on foot and cannot remember much of the detail, particularly if it’s a journey we make on a regular basis – that’s alpha sleep. It tends to take hold when you have the initiative taken away from you.

It sounds far-fetched I know, but I believe that certain aspects of health and safety take away the responsibility that should remain with the individual: usually, human beings instinctively rely on their own common sense and naturally take care of others. This belief leads me to the conclusion that the drafting and implementation of some of the UK’s health and safety laws, mainly by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels, has gone seriously wrong.

To illustrate what I mean by that, consider an operative who is in charge of a goods hoist on one of our contracts. My safety officer tells me that he has used it for some time without any accident. This is not surprising, as the hoist can be operated only at ground level by means of a control box on an insulated cable, which is situated well away from the hoist itself. The control panel has two buttons, one marked “up” and the other “down”. I’ve been advised that the operative will be required to go on a day’s training course, with a further half day for assessment, to meet the requirements of the Construction Plant Compliance Scheme.

This approach is endorsed, no doubt with good intentions, by the main contractors who are of course putting more and more responsibility for safety onto their subcontractor; this adds a considerable workload to the site supervisor and continues to eat away at a bottom line already suffering from keen pricing.

Like other specialist contractors, we employ highly skilled craftsmen and my attitude is that I expect those highly skilled craftsman to use the same common sense approach in looking after their own safety, and the safety of others, as they do when carrying out their craft – rather than being subjected to a series of glib statistics, investigations and corrective measures. I would rather employ a man who chooses to operate a hoist safely than one that relies on a sign telling him to.

The UK government appears to goldplate much of what the EU dictates on health and safety, and we have yet to see the government’s response to last summer’s Donaghy report. David Cameron has at least called for an end to the UK’s “over the top” health and safety culture, and although I appreciate the next government, of whichever party, will have financial problems to deal with as a first priority, it also needs to encourage us to care for one another’s welfare with the same urgency as it tackles the deficit.

Of course health and safety is good for you – but with a large dose of common sense and individual responsibility thrown in. Otherwise, like children, each of us will never gain the experience needed to assess the danger.