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Myth busting

It always amazes me what people think health and safety is. Since I have been HSE's Chair, I have come across some frankly quite strange views about what it exists for and what it should get involved in.

At my daughter's graduation ceremony, I wanted an official photo to mark the proud occasion. As we were queuing I was bemused to see in big red and white letters this warning: ONLY PEOPLE BEING PHOTOGRAPHED are allowed beyond this point due to Health and Safety.

Clearly it was nonsense - a ruse to keep the new graduates corralled out of the frame of their mates' photos. I have no doubt that the assumption was that people dare not challenge 'health and safety' rulings, that it forces them into submission.

Well, we've just launched the Myth Busters Challenge Panel to give the public the support and confidence they need to take on the jobsworths and cynics.

When people hear about children being ordered to wear goggles to play conkers or the dangers of candy floss on a stick it undermines public confidence in our true task, which is to manage serious risks to life and limb in Britain's workplaces.

There is of course a big difference between somebody saying something is health and safety, and that actually being the case.

We often see this in newspaper stories. I have no problem with the media taking to task organisations and individuals who make stupid decisions in the name of health and safety - being publicly chastised does tend to focus minds on whether a ban or bizarre restriction is in fact necessary.

But we do need reporting to be accurate, based on hard facts rather than easy allegations. Just because somebody reels off a quote saying it's elf and safety gone mad, doesn't make it true.

HSE is careful to check its facts before offering comment. Lots of readers will have seen this week a story about a seagull tangled in a plastic bag on a pond in Carlshalton in London. Firefighters were called out by an animal charity, but chose not to wade into the water to free the bird - it was a simple operational decision, not directed by safety regulations.

We were able to reach this conclusion and issue a statement without referral to the panel, but I have no doubt that when it comes improving people's understanding and opinion of health and safety the Myth Busters Challenge Panel has vital work ahead.