The European Union has been the source of some of the UK’s most prominent health and safety legislation. The story goes back a very long way, but really began to dominate UK thinking with the ‘six-pack’ ‘(Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1992).
When the six-pack was launched it resulted in a flurry of activity. Workstations and manual handling tasks were assessed by the thousand as responsible employers assured their compliance with the new regulations. More difficult to implement were the workplace regulations. Nobody really understood what to do with them (and they probably still don’t).
The six-pack spawned new industries as legions of trainers developed courses to train people who never really lifted anything how to lift things properly if they ever did. Entrepreneurial IT geeks created programmes to train people how to assess and use their own computer workstation even though their exposure to risk was negligible. High-street opticians welcomed a cash cow of unnecessary eye tests and pointless spectacles that the workers never wore. Academics re-wrote curricula. With bated breath, the health and safety industry waited for a quantum reduction in disease.
Twenty years later, we are still waiting.
Over time, the full implications of the EU directives became ever clearer. A litigants’ delight, the directives didn’t concern themselves with issues such as reasonable practicability, but absolute duty. Yes, the training may be a complete waste of time, but you have to do it anyway.
The much vaunted impact on morbidity just didn’t arrive. Backs still ache, wrists are still sore, eyes are still tired, and minds are still stressed.
The improvements to health were never going to arrive – the steps required by the legislation had no basis in evidence. The impact of intervention was assumed, and nobody made any meaningful attempt to test whether the proposed laws would actually deliver anything more than a huge pile of bureaucracy.
Now evidence is emerging. Manual handling training doesn’t work.1 And there are no meaningful interventions that lead to sustained improvements in mental health.2 But we are still left with a legacy of absolute duties to do pointless things. And while money is being wasted on things that definitely don’t work, we can’t afford to do things that might and can.
Recently, the EU published New and Emerging Risk in Occupational Safety and Health.3 Apart from nanotechnology, the EU Agency hasn’t identified anything new at all. With any luck, this means it won’t promote a new tranche of whimsical legislation and intervention without any basis in evidence.
What we need is for the EU to invest time in scrapping its own old, unsuccessful legislation. In this they have omitted the most insidious emergent health and safety risk – the stubborn retention of discredited rules and regulations.
Like many in their youth, the EU proudly sported a six-pack. And like many as they grow older, wiser and less vain, the efforts to sustain it should be given up for more meaningful concerns.
Dr Richard Preece is a consultant occupational physician.