Skip to main content

The Philosophy of Health and Safety

Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply

So we come to the end of another year. A year in which again I have witnessed so much stupidity in the name of health and safety. Paperwork prepared and left in the file once viewed. Documents created and never used. What a waste of time this profession can be and why?  Because big business needs to cov r its back in order to indemnify itself of taking any real responsibility for the safety and welfare of its employees.

Not that the employees are exempt either! So often any excuse to make a claim has created this monstrosity where a stiff-minded dictatorial approach seems the only valid solution.

And the legal profession with their ambulance chasing lets make money from tragedy approach they are the biggest parasites of all!

But why do we need all this paperwork? The answer is simple to cover ourselves because our employees are not sufficiently well trained or competent to manage themselves.  At least weve told them how to do their job!

But why should we need to? If we train our people then they should be able to manage themselves. Driving my 120mph killing machine doesnt get a risk assessment and a method statement every time I drive it into town.

So I accuse you all yes all of you for accepting the status quo - because its the easy option yes I accuse you all of sheep-like compliance for not regaling against the mind-numbing soporific boredom of all of this yes what we do day in day out for a living.  Oh and by the way Im as guilty as the rest of you!

Of course we need to write clear instructions for the abnormal tasks in life the confined space entry procedure the crane lift of a generator across a main road. Of course we need to be involved here to minimise risks.

But telling a person that he or she needs to wear safety gloves to write a report on site? Give me strength!  Yet we accept this nonsense and repeat it verbatim over and over.

No wonder our productivity is so low. Weve lost the will to be creative to protect people at work without stifling their ability to do a job.

Merry Christmas Everybody!


This email has been scanned by the Symantec Email service.
For more information please visit
Alison C R 10 months ago   Reply
Speak for your self Bill. By the way, have you written anything positive about health and safety this year?
Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
Yes Alison if only this!

“Get rid of the generic repetitive paperwork that never gets read - and concentrate on training individuals to become competent at making their own decisions. To make individuals responsible for their actions whilst saving a 100 Scandinavian forests from being cut down!  And re-employ people who used to read paperwork in actual first line practical working and supervision of what actually goes on”.


johng 10 months ago   Reply

Bill. You are entitled to your opinion, however, i do not have the same outlook. As professional safety practitioners, managers, advisors etc we all approach what we do differently. Do I get negative ays seeing things in a way that does not please me? Yes, have lots of those days. Although I have to say I have had and still have an impact on the people I come across, be it, management, operators, and others. 

I have a progressive outlook and try to challenge the systems if they are too bureaucratic and this applies to both the systems, paperwork, and employees irrespective of level within the food chain. I have improved systems, and also the culture within areas that I work. Will I ever get to the end goal of solving and being completely satisfied with what I achieve? Never, whilst people are involved, however, I do know that I can influence change and that day by day hearts and minds are being slightly altered by what can happen at the coalface front. Sometimes positive influencing will slowly over a period of time change the culture. This starts with people making decisions right to the coalface front workers and back again.

Happy Christmas Bill, I hope you get what you want but don't think that will happen.

Ta John

Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
The people who are taking issue with me Johng, actually seem to agree with me – they are just saying that they are more positive and not repetitious.  So great this is what we need and exactly what I am saying. What I am saying is – “my chances for being positive and changing attitudes are so, so limited by stiff-mindedness and fear of change”.   

I bet even those of you who have a portfolio of Clients, that claim to be progressive, though actually spend a fair bit of time churning out generic things with addresses changed. This is what industry and insurers call for so we have to. Good on you for trying to make changes in attitudes. I hope you succeed! That’s precisely what I am saying!

Changing attitudes regarding dust, access platforms and manual handling have proved that messages get through in time (even if insurance claims are the real spur).  But the fundamental change from paperwork to actual trained personnel capable for making decisions on health and safety would be the best possible solution.


Kevin Rogers 10 months ago   Reply
Hi Bill I hear your message loud and clear here but somehow feel you may be ranting at yourself and making the assumption that all people do the very same things that you've confessed to. Indeed, there is an argument that some OTT stuff switches people off to engaging with health and safety. This can sometimes lead to the 'important' and 'hazardous' stuff being tarred with the same brush and people disengaging with the whole subject. Just to give you some reassurance and hopefully comfort, there are some of us out there that empower people to make sensible decisions, provoke them to think about their own perceptions of risk, tendency to normalise their environments and switch off to significant hazards that they are exposed to on a regular basis. We encourage them to recognise their own challenges and create effective solutions to look after themselves at the sharp end. This way, they are more likely to introduce positive changes to the way they go about the activities and sustain that change (as opposed to being told what they have to do without good reason). We encourage people to empathise with others around them and try to understand why people behave the way they do, thus changing the style and approach that you may have towards an individual that you perceive to be acted in an unsafe manner. Some work very hard to change mindsets and do an awful lot more than cover their backsides and credit should be given to people that fall in to this bracket. Assuming that we all see things the same way and approach things the same way can be dangerous. Great that you feel comfortable to share your perspective on things by the way! Merry Christmas to all regardless of your mind set and opinion on the subject. Kev Rogers
Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
Kevin – this is no rant – and of course I do the change the address on the paperwork game- just to get my Clients working!  It is a plea for people to look at why we have health and safety – to make sure people can work with the risks of injuries and ill-health reduced to the lowest practicable level.  I’m simply stating that by altering the emphasis from’ producing paperwork that no-one reads, and stating the same things over and over’ to ‘training the people to manage risks themselves and making them responsible’ you would save billions, speed up work, reduce clutter and improve productivity! Isn’t that exactly what UK Limited wants?

Totally agree about the “important” bit – I train asbestos awareness (a football ground-full of fatalities every year) . And then I tell people that guidance says they need tom PAT test 110v tools three monthly (one fatality and a freak in 115 years from 110v). There’s a danger that the recipients of the information give the two the same weighting!

I have tried empowering workers – and we have made great strides in self-assessment, risk assessment modification etc. But still on the big contracts there is so much paper that never gets to the workers whilst safety departments play a kind of game about changing the minutiae of the wording in the RAMs.  And you do what gets your Client on site. Don’t dare to change what they want – “win an  argument lose a sale” – applies to getting your men on site too!

All you have said is laudable in the approach you promote  – it is exactly the approach I am promoting. My issue is that there are too many closed ears wanting an easy life out there noy willing to let it happen.


Kevin Rogers 10 months ago   Reply
Hi Bill This message is much clearer to be fair and frames your thinking in a much more effective way. Indeed I share your thinking about far too much paperwork that adds very little value. It becomes counter productive and is often unrealistic to expect those that execute work pieces to trawl through so much (if indeed it's made visible to them). I do believe that most people introduce whatever they do with complete positive intent and sometimes do not consider the adverse effects that it can have. To empathise with these people too and understand what drives them to introduce what they do is also a powerful activity to undertake. By doing so and changing communication style with these people, it may just change the way that information is received. It might possibly feel more like a helping hand to get people to reflect and adapt rather than an attack. Nobody likes negative criticism and finger pointing when they've tried to do the right thing. We all make decisions in what we do and sometimes we recognise that we've taken the wrong path. You clearly have some valuable insights to share and I wish you all the best in getting your perceptions across effectively! Take care Kev Rogers
Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
Kev – I did say I was as guilty as everyone else in perpetuating the status quo….
Kevin Rogers 10 months ago   Reply
Indeed you did mate. Fair play for that. A touch of humility goes a long way. Take care Kev
Andy Allan (structural Engineer, designer) 10 months ago   Reply


Happy Christmas and a prosperous and successful New Year to you.  Well done.  It needed to be said and it needed to be said by someone on the inside, as it were.

I have just assisted my wife in a successful campaign to break through the cordon of impenetrable paperwork defending one of the Oxford colleges.  She is providing outside catering for a wedding on the premises.  The service is inside the College but she is not allowed to use their kitchen so a marquee kitchen is being set up in the car park outside for her and her three assistants.  The hoops she was made to jump through were unbelievable.

Standing back and reviewing the nightmare of bureaucracy, the obscure standards (which were not statutory requirements) which no-one has ever read, the meaningless drivel which records what experienced people do every day for their living and which has nonetheless to be written down, I am left asking myself how on earth this could possibly assist health or safety.

I know to my personal cost that this blind obsession with having everything written down is meaningless and wasteful of time and resources.  Worse still, method statements and risk assessments reside in a cupboard or drawer and that is where they stay.

It was disheartening to see the negative responses you received.  I know (as does anyone who has followed your posts) that it would be hard to find anyone who cares more about health and safety than you do.  Your comments should be seen as necessary and constructive criticism of an industry which has become so blinkered by its own navel-gazing as to become utterly irrelevant to most ordinary working people and businesses.  It is high time that some common sense was brought to bear but I am increasingly convinced that 'common' sense has lost its validity and is now a misnomer - there seems to be so little of it that it can hardly be called 'common' anymore. 

We need people who will speak out and point to the naked idiot Emperor swaggering down the road.  I say again, well done.  I see nothing negative at all in your posts.

Kevin Rogers 10 months ago   Reply
Andy We all have examples where excessive requirements have hindered things to run smooth and created what seems to be unnecessary challenge in certain circumstance. I will however note, that there are a number of situations where stringent control has added significant benefit. I see this side of things very regularly working within the oil and gas industry where the consequence of lack of control could be catastrophic (especially when introducing some construction workers in to this world). And if there's a perceived lack of control in a relatively safe area, what impression may this set for when people move in to more hazardous zones. Creating the right habits is essential. I refer back to people's intent. When people introduce controls, they generally do it with positive intent and indeed it goes too far at times and can switch people off. Empathy as a tool, however helps deal with what will seem to be pointless challenges. I spend an abundance of time, as do many others, attempting to get people to understand what a significant hazard is and to apply controls proportionatly according to severity (or perceived severity - another mine field in itself). It is the unfortunate truth though, that there is real fear and nervousness that drives some of the requirements that are implemented. I will also encourage those that have to adhere to controls to understand why they are introduced etc. A point of note is that the health and safety profession have no control over who will submit a compensation claim for the most minor occurrence, nor does it have control over the endless companies convincing people to claim for things that they sometimes know they probably shouldn't or don't need to. My wife had a very small prang in our car a little while back and the amount of people that I've had call me to tell me that she will have suffered significant mental challenges at the time and beyond is unbelievable (she absolutely hasn't). This is not to say that some won't or that most claims in the workplace are real. I remember a lady falling in a supermarket when I lived in Ireland and claimed thousands of pounds for embarrassment that it caused. She had no injuries. What will this drive companies to do? Another major hindrance is the way that major companies measure accident rates etc. The reaction that comes when somebody makes a dent in safety records and damages recordable incident rates is often very unhealthy. Lots of work at corporate levels is needed to address this type of reaction and to get organisations to think about how they receive bad news. With regards to common sense, I think it's a potentially dangerous thing to rely on. We all perceive things differently and if you asked a group of workers to undertake a task based on their common sense in a hazardous environment, I have no doubt that you would observe a range of different behaviours. Some excellent, some acceptable and some quite shocking looking through your lens. I have seen this working with many different trades in varying cultures. They often bring with them their version of common sense and try to apply it, at which point I often have to intervene and provoke them to think about their actions and potential consequence in their environment. Again, I fully empathise with your frustrations with your great example. Worthy of thought is that there are many things that are driving people to do what they do. There is not a single solution to resolve all and every situation requires looking at in its own unique way. Simply throwing away paperwork and losing the positive legacy from experienced people such as your wife could lead to problems down the line. Not everybody coming to do what she does will be as experienced or will have dealt with the hazards that she deals for so long. Maybe something else that it worth considering is, what may she have tuned out over the years. What's accepted as the norm now? I'm not saying we should roll over and tolerate it. We should indeed challenge the status quo and continue to enhance and improve the way that we do things. But, at least try to understand why people do what they do. Use language that will get them to think about how useful they're being versus how they may hinder situations etc. Kind Regards Kev
Frank 10 months ago   Reply

Well put ! 

Its not all bad is it? we tend to focus on the nonsensical side of things, we all know that we do actually make a difference despite the challenges  

Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
Thank you Andy much appreciated – negativity is the last thing that seeking a change is about – but it needs the industry to start to understand itself and to change its approach in the way it appropriates skill rather than thinking that possible cracks in skill shortfalls can be “papered over”.
George 10 months ago   Reply
Perpetuating the status quo? Interesting statement. I would say that many
within 'big industry' may be a little guilty of tagging along until we
convince our masters of a clearer vision. You as an independent, self
determining business entity have less of an excuse as you can change what
you do in a heart beat.
The challenges to the status quo I have seen from my team and indeed myself
and many others I have the pleasure of knowing is not reflected within your
statement. You may be guilty of such actions Bill, but most definitely not
the same as EVERYONE else.
be safe, enjoy Christmas and look forward to your 2018 of cut n paste.
Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
No George with respect – I would argue I can do less. I can only do what my Client is willing to pay for. The big company says the little company must do this – and I represent the little company. It is the big companies that have the power and resources to dictate change, but less of an incentive to do so.

I would be amazed George if you were making the fundamental changes I suggest. Because I don’t see them anywhere I work. I have worked on massive projects in the past 4 years and this is exactly what goes on, time and gain. RAMs with a minimal change sent from subbie to main contractor, and contracted labour employed with little interest in anything other than a bare minimum qualification to work.  I make changes where and when I can, but the cut and thrust of getting rid of paper to see more highly developed and trained workers I cannot achieve. Why?  Because it is endemic behaviour in an industry that relies on contracted rather than employed labour.  Simply “Maslow”’s model never shows anything above basic survival in the hierarchy of needs of people who cannot see a working life beyond the next 8-12 weeks.  There isn’t the security of a regular income stream for site labour to “self develop” or “self-actualize”, unless done through a large contractor – and why should he – he’s not going to employ any of them in the longer term?

This issue comes about because of the contracting and tendering process, Bare minimum cost to achieve whatever is asked for, because there is no guarantee of future security.

Only by insurance companies and Government policing agencies precipitating a change will we see this change in philosophy. 

But this silly game of paperwork – telling experienced people how to do jobs they do every day of the week… after site. I’m sure no one wants to admit to perpetuating it. But Ill admit it!  Because I’m told by my Clients that’s what it takes to get them working on site….so some of you out there must be equally guilty some of the time at least (even if you don’t want to admit it).


George 10 months ago   Reply

I can only do what my client pays for is a cop out. You stated that all
safety professionals 'Perpetuating the status quo?' however you wont
challenge it because your not paid to. Good grief Bill. Don't you dare
challenge my work ethic when you will turn two blind eyes for a cheque.

Not all professional safety advisors perpetuate the status quo, many have
challenged and changed much. You do not challenge the status quo because
there is no money in it for you. Do not include me in your generalised
statement of incompetence. I have put my job on the line more than once
challenging the status quo. I have never stated that I wont challenge
behaviours on or off my site. As a matter of fact I was labelled a
jobsworth for the very suggestion. There are too many safety customs and
practices bought and paid for by client/s who cant be challenged or
reported on by the safety professionals they pay. As I have said many
times I never realised haw many blind professionals there were out there
till I joined this forum.

The systems for challenge and change are there. Unsafe sites should be
reported. Don't give me the old chestnut of no HSE. Whether the HSE attends
or not is irrelevant. If you want to drive change carry out the full gambit
of challenge. But you wont. Not because its not right to do it, to start
decommissioning the status quo but because you might lose money if you
become known as some one who drives change, and you are not prepared to
lose a penny piece. You are right to admit that you don't challenge the
status quo, however don't admit it it on the w.w.w on my, or many of my
colleagues behalf.

be safe
Frank 10 months ago   Reply

Well Bill and George 

One thing for certain is that you both acknowledge that the H&S profession does have an image crisis, not always fair or reasonable, and misconceptions are rife. How do we deal with these issues in a positive light? Over zealous rules is counter productive and turning a blind eye is not going to change anything and only encourage the "status quo". Many great things have been implemented saving lots of injuries and many things have been implemented that have little value or respect. I say stand and be counted but then I am on a salary and have real influence in my workplace, trying to influence clients and contractors  is a challenge and one that I relish.

Bill Sowerbutts 10 months ago   Reply
I am sorry George it isn’t a “cop out”. If I don’t give the Client what he wants, then I have no business. I have to eat!  I’ve lost business too by doing the right thing, but only when it’s a battle that matters. This simply doesn’t matter. Its just a dreary repetitive process that numbs the mind after a while. What I am talking about is a soporific process repeating itself daily all over the UK. There is no system for change. Insurance companies love paperwork. Pre-accreditation companies thrive on it. It’s the workers that never read it – yet it exists to “protect” them. How much more worthwhile would be more skills and knowledge training form them.

It isn’t me that will lose the money George – it’s my Clients – I give them what their own Clients ask for – I am in no position to go and challenge that, and risk losing them work! But if you’ve never done that then OK we’ll make an exception for you if it makes you feel better.  Every other health and safety professional I know personally has had to perform this process, but I’m sure there must be an exception somewhere that proves the rule.


KC 10 months ago   Reply
Bill, You seem insistent that a lot of the health and safety paperwork produced  is unnecessary. Your comments  "But this silly game of paperwork - telling experienced people how to do jobs they do every day of the after site."  Many accidents occur to people who have years of experience doing the same job but  who probably become complacent and believe they are able to deal with any hazardous situation. An example of an experience worker having an accident at work has been demonstrated at the HSE Laboratory at Buxton, on 4 October 2016 a worker suffered serious burns while setting up an experimental hydrogen test rig.   "The investigation by HM Inspectors concluded that the pressure testing went wrong because of failings to assess, plan, manage and control a well-known risk of death or serious injury. The investigation team found the incident could have been prevented by putting in place recognised control measures available in longstanding published guidance." Producing valuable and constructive paperwork is not silly, it can make the workplace safer. It's difficult assessing, planning, managing and controlling without producing paperwork. The biggest problem seems to be from inexperienced people producing reams of meaningless paperwork and the failure of managers and supervisors to manage the task in hand safely and in accordance with the approved plan.  

To improve readability, some repeated lines have been removed. Show the removed lines.