CIC chief Keith Clarke wants us to project a more positive image of workplace health and safety, but is that really going change anything? And is it as much fun as pointing out the foibles of safety cowboys?
Children’s favourite Bob the Builder reportedly “took time out” yesterday to help his old friends at the HSE out and promote their ladder safety campaign at London’s Science Museum. My immediate response was: poor old Bob. Not only has he sunk to Z-list promotional appearances, he’s also been hired to demonstrate ladder safety when, as far as I can tell, he does not appear to have any fingers. And it’s a sorry day when the only celeb the HSE can get to plug their campaign is not only fictional, but animated. Still, their kids must have been excited.
No, what the industry really needs for health and safety issues is not a celebrity, but a superhero. Someone who can bring together all the fragmented parts of the industry and make them work together. Someone who can push forward a positive health and safety agenda. But who could do such a thing? Step forward Atkins chief executive Keith Clarke.
If you didn’t catch the news, Clarke has been making waves in health and safety circles for a while now. As chair of the CIC’s health and safety committee he has made it his business to engage all sectors of the industry in health and safety issues, leading from the front and pledging much of his time to improving the welfare of the construction industry. At this magazine’s recent health and safety awards, Clarke won the Outstanding Safety Achievement for his work with the committee. It seems to be his raison d’etre.
Last week, Clarke invited journalists to attend the next stage of his crusade to make the masses healthy and safe. It wasn’t until we arrived at the rather smart venue that we realised that, well, we were it. Clarke brought us wary construction hacks together with various industry heads to discuss how we, the media, could push forward a positive health and safety agenda, rather than dwelling on the negative side of things.
Wherein lies a Catch-22 situation. If everyone did the right thing, and workers were treated properly and there was a zero-percent accident rate across the industry, it would be a terrifically good thing and everyone would be happy. But who would want to read about it? Whenever we run a story on building.co.uk about the negative side of health and safety – the accidents, the near misses, the improper conduct – the web stats leap up. Our safety blunder pictures are regularly the most popular, or at least the most commented on pieces on the web. Evidently, people like reading bad news.
Having said that, we don’t sit here crossing our fingers for accidents to happen. And when we find interesting, colourful, original stories about health and safety, we try our best to put them in the magazine. Everyone here would prefer to write a headline saying “Construction deaths hit all-time low” than one saying the opposite.
From a journalist’s point of view, I don’t think it’s up to us to create a positive health and safety culture, it’s up to you. In fact, whether or not we choose to write about it will make very little difference as to whether it happens or not. Only one thing is clear - when accidents do happen, we must do our best to report them, both because you want to know when these things happen, and because you need to know.
But I would say all of this wouldn’t I? I’m a journalist. This is only one half of a dialogue though. If we wrote positive stories about companies with great, progressive health and safety regimes, would you want to read them? Or would you rather see a holiday snap of some maniac shinning up a fifty-foot pole with no harness on?