· 1 min read · Features

What did the Titanic disaster teach employers about health and safety?


There is a curious approach to safety in the UK.

Egg and spoon races are sometimes banned on grounds of health and safety; yet when I travelled to Cardiff by train on a day Wales were playing a Six Nations game at home one Saturday about a month ago, you couldn't have shoehorned an empty envelope on to the train. It was disgracefully - and dangerously - crowded. It seems we have learned nothing from earlier rail disasters.

Safety at work is vitally important; that principle should never be in dispute. Yet safety is often cited quite wrongly as the reason for permitting or not permitting something. The decision by The All England Lawn Tennis Club to turn off the big screen at "Henman Hill" last year for health and safety reasons drew forth some very tart remarks by the Health and Safety Executive's CEO, along the lines that fears of insurance claims should not be confused with safety risks.

The centenary of the sinking of the Titanic is a good time to take stock. Only a few years earlier than that there was little in the way of protection for employees; employers were still arguing volenti non fit injuria (i.e. if he works for me, he knows the risk and therefore consents to it). Fortunately for the working population that has long been debunked as a defence.

We now work within a well-defined framework and there are serious penalties for callous or careless disregard, which maims or kills.

The first prosecution for corporate manslaughter of Cotswold Geotechnical Holdings resulted in a £385,000 fine and an unwanted notoriety. Many companies rail against the bureaucracy and cost of safety activities, but in fact in most cases the answer is a reasoned and reasonable compliance; proportionality and prevention rather than cure. We can never make any environment or activity 100% safe, but we can and should take sensible steps to reduce the risk.

While things remain tight economically, it's tempting to reduce spend on safety precautions. But not only is there a compliance and moral duty to ensure safety standards are achieved, there are positive cost benefits from a well-maintained operation. In 2008 IOSH commented: Organisations with a proactive approach to health and safety management tend to perform better in terms of profit margins, number of accidents and days lost because of accidents.

Kate Russell, MD of Russell HR Consulting