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Unintended consequences

Over the last year the Myth Busters Challenge Panel has brought common sense and reality to a number of outrageous examples of "health and safety" being used as an excuse for a variety of things including cost saving, poor customer service and bureaucracy for its own sake.

But there are a number of other facets to the risk averse culture which we all encounter in our daily lives. I know the minute I step out of the house and it's raining that I will see signs at the railway station warning me to be careful because it's wet. I know, you didn't need to tell me! My cup of coffee bought on the way to the office will warn me that the contents are hot. Good, that's what I expect!

I don't suppose I am the only one who gets irritated by these statements of the obvious. It has nothing to do with health and safety legislation but a lot to do with companies fearing that any one of us might take civil litigation against them in the event that we slip on the platform or spill the coffee.

I sometimes read reports in the press about civil cases and on the basis of the limited information presented to me, I question why some of the claims succeed. I am sure that there is often more to the story than I am reading. I also often feel sympathy with the considerable pain and suffering that some people have experienced and recognise that they have been hurt through no fault of their own and should be compensated.

But what worries me most is the unintended ripple effect that follows some of those cases that are reported. Does the number of people who have slipped on wet platforms and walkways really justify the full scale deployment of signs everywhere as soon as it turns cloudy? Does one customer injured in a supermarket trolley incident mean that all trolleys are declared unsafe? There is no doubt in my mind that some of these unintended consequence reactions to highly publicised civil claims form a significant part of health and safety "gorn mad".

The blizzard of signs and warnings that we all encounter every day carry a risk in themselves - that we become blind to the ones that really matter, where there is a real risk to life and limb.

If there's one sign I'd like to see more of, it would be one that says "Look where you're going - take care of yourself". Unless we all start to take more personal responsibility for ourselves and what happens to us, it's going to be difficult to break that fear of civil litigation which is all around us and which contributes to many people's cynicism about health and safety.