Has health and safety gone completely crackers? STEPHEN LEWIS reports.

YOU probably didn’t realise it when you put on your party hat and leaned over the dinner table to pull grandad’s Christmas cracker last year, but you were toying with a dangerous weapon.

Crackers, it seems, are now to be regarded as explosives, so it is illegal to sell them to children under 16.

That, at least, is what several department stores in York seem to believe – although as we report today, the Health & Safety Executive insists shops which refused to sell crackers to a 15-year-old boy were being over-zealous and had misinterpreted the law.

It is always fun to have a go at bonkers “health & safety” rulings. But there is a serious point too. Are we allowing fears over health and safety to rule our lives? And what price are we paying?

The pensioner

“The world has gone utterly mad,” said 89-year-old Terry Clark when told about the ban on selling crackers.

Terry knows a thing or two about risk; he was an air gunner during the Battle Of Britain.

Life itself is a risk, he says. “I could walk out and slip over and break my leg. Does that mean I should stay indoors and never move? And then is the gas going to explode so I’ll be killed by that?”

When he was a child, Terry used to play outside, climb trees, go scrumping for apples, and chase hoops down the road.

Today, he says, we’ve gone health and safety mad – and he’s worried about the effect it will have on children. What about encouraging a sense of adventure? We’re already seeing teachers reluctant to take children on activity holidays, he said. “We’re molly-coddling our children too much. This is stupid.”

The MP

There has been a two-thirds reduction in workplace fatalities since the introduction of the Health & Safety At Work Act in 1974, says Selby MP John Grogan. So there are real benefits to the legislation.

That said, it is possible to take things too far. The rise of the compensation culture has meant that we are now all becoming too risk averse. He, too, is most worried about the effect on children. “If we are completely risk averse, our children are never going to be allowed to go outside on their own. They won’t be allowed to climb trees or play contact sports. That is no way to live.”

Many of the more barmy health and safety stories are caused by the “law of unintended consequences”, Mr Grogan says – they simply weren’t foreseen by those who drafted health and safety legislation.

We cannot possibly legislate to cover every risk, Mr Grogan says – nor should we try. “Common sense must prevail. Unfortunately, I don’t think we can pass a law in favour of common sense.”

The sociologist

There are different types of risk, says University of York sociology professor Andrew Webster. Some, such as the risk of climate change, need to be tackled collectively.

Others, such as the risk of personal injury, are often inflamed by the compensation culture. Fear of litigation can lead to attempts to reduce such risk using legislation, where a more common sense approach would be better.

Prof Webster gives an example: obesity. It is clearly a health risk, but there are two ways we could tackle it. “We can try to treat it with drugs, or find a gene for obesity. Or we could try to get people to understand it, and to change their behaviour.”

There are many everyday risks where it doesn’t make sense to use the law, he says – banning the sale of Christmas crackers is a classic example. Much better to deal with such risks as families and communities, by teaching our children about them.

Over-hyping risk makes us more frightened, not less. He recently took a train journey in which passengers were warned there was CCTV on board for their own safety. The effect was to change the atmosphere on the train. Instead of simply being a way of getting from A-B, it came to seem like a “site of potential violence and risk”.

The lawyer

Lawyer Jeremy Scott, of Langley’s Solicitors, said modern businesses were overwhelmed by rules and regulations. At the same time, the number of investigations and prosecutions for offences increase at an alarming rate,” he said.

“It seems that every day new regulatory liabilities, reporting obligations, additional penalties, codes of practice and guidance documents are introduced.

“Keeping up-to-date with these issues can appear to be an almost intolerable burden.”

The Health & Safety Executive

There are a “number of common misconceptions” surrounding the Health & Safety Executive’s (HSE) work which paint a picture of out-of-control regulators intent on ruining the public’s enjoyment, an HSE spokesman said.

“Many of the stories are myths or the result of someone going beyond what the law, and common sense, dictates.

“Negative press reports or over zealous attitudes often result when people are acting on poor technical advice or are just using health and safety requirements as an excuse to save money.

“Sensible safety is about saving lives not stopping people living.

“Since the Health & Safety At Work Act came into effect in 1974, there have been great improvements, particularly in terms of safety – more than 5,000 people are alive today who otherwise would not be. Britain has cut workplace fatalities by 76 per cent since 1974.”

Barmy rulings

* A hands-on “wheel tapping” experiment at the National Railway Museum in York closed on health and safety grounds.

* Christmas puddings sold with separate sixpences, because of a choking hazard.

* Children at a primary school banned from making daisy chains in case they pick up germs.

* Carpenters told not to use brooms to sweep up sawdust because it could spark asthma.