Nothing funny about ‘elf and safety’

British doctor derides critics who disparage efforts of workplace safety professionals

A British occupational health and safety specialist has come out swinging at critics and the general public who pour scorn on the industry.

Do a Google search on the phrase “elf and safety” and you’ll see a lot of references — the bulk of them in the U.K. — that disparage the efforts of workplace safety professionals. But Karen Baxter, a doctor for Sypol, a firm that specializes in workplace safety, doesn’t see the humour in it. People who make jokes about safety at work wouldn’t take the same attitude towards an air accident, she said.

"If a plane crashed and killed 180 people, we wouldn`t be having a good laugh and call it `Sky Pixie Syndrome`," said Baxter, pointing out that 180 people a year die in workplace accidents in Britain and more than 246,000 are injured.

"Health and Safety has become the acceptable butt of everyone`s humour, partly because the media loves silly stories and partly because we`ve allowed ourselves to drown in acronyms and paperwork instead of addressing the real issues,” she said. “As a result, small businesses in particular have been discouraged from adopting sensible practices."

Recent media stories have included: children being prohibited from playing conkers (a traditional chestnut smashing game); old people being refused doormats in case they trip over them; and shopkeepers told not to put down grit in icy conditions.

"Most of these stories are apocryphal or driven by insurance requirements, not health and safety. Good health and safety is a combination of regulation, business benefits and moral cost," said Baxter. "No-one who has been involved in causing harm to someone at work ever wants to go through it again."

There are numerous business benefits of making OHS an enterprise-wide culture, she said. These include: accidents avoided, fewer working days lost, improved recruitment and staff retention, improved customer confidence, reduced insurance premiums, and the ability to tender for large corporate and government contracts.

Small companies bear a disproportionate burden because the same rules apply to all businesses, large and small, she said. However, small business owners can put health and safety at the centre of their operations without it being time-consuming, bureaucratic or a waste of money.

"It`s time to shoot the `elf` and get serious about workplace Health," said Baxter.

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