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Myth of the Month

Welcome to the HSE podcast

This month we look at HSE's Myth of the Month campaign and ask Sally Sykes, HSE's director of communications to nominate her favourite health and safety myth

Unfortunately there's a lot to choose from, whether we ban flip flops or toppings on ice creams or we're the fun police who stop village fetes and all of that. Total myths.

But first, here's a round up of other health and safety news

New figures show that Britain has the lowest rate of work-related deaths in Europe and one of the lowest levels of occupational ill health.

152 workers were fatally injured between April 2009 and March this year − 27 fewer than the previous year. This is the lowest level in Britain since records began.

Major injuries, such as amputations or burns were also down, as were injuries serious enough to keep people off work for three days or more.

But the number of people who said they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by work continues to rise. This year it's 1.3 million, up from 1.2 million last year.

All the figures, including comparisons to previous years, are available in detail at hse.gov.uk/statistics

A Merseyside headteacher has been fined £20,000 after one of his students fell two and half metres through a roof light, leaving him, with broken ribs, a perforated eardrum and permanent damage to his right eye.

HSE prosecuted headteacher John Summerfield, who is now retired, after he led a group of teenagers onto a roof at Sacred Heart Catholic College in Crosby on A-level results day in 2008 to show them part of the school they'd not seen before.

Liverpool Crown Court found Mr Summerfield guilty of failing to protect the safety of his students and ordered him to also pay £22,000 towards the cost of the prosecution.

The Government is aiming to help businesses save time and money by making it easier for companies to apply for construction contracts.

The new prequalification questionnaire contains a standard set of questions that companies can answer once, and use each time they apply for a government construction contract.

The questionnaire - known as PAS 91 - can be downloaded from the websites of either the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or the British Standards Institution.

It's been said that a lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on and never more so than with health and safety myths. From bans on conkers to firefighters being prevented from sliding down poles the media love an 'elf and safety story

Oi! Firefighters, stop right there. Use the stairs. This pole is out of bounds.

And it seems that the public do too.

There's lots of stupid things out there, isn't there? That you can't do this and you can't do that and you know, everyone is frightened of getting into trouble for letting people do it, aren't they?

I know when I was stupid I used to thing the risk assessments were kind of stupid.

Climbing trees is one. I used to do climbing trees a lot, yeah.

Playing conkers, has that been banned? You've got to wear glasses or something now. Or goggles.

Conkers at school. That's gone mad.

Conkers in the playground, isn't it? And that sort of thing.

I always used to play conkers. I used to love it. And you don't see it any more, that's very true actually.

For the past three and a half years, HSE has been fighting back against the tide of misinformation with its popular website feature 'Myth of the Month'. Using illustrated cartoons, the site exposes the rumours, half-truths and downright lies that health and safety seems to attract more than almost any other subject.

Now then, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'm going to throw these sweets to you...

Oh no you're not!

We asked Sally Sykes, Director of Communications at HSE, how it all started

Well it's being going for about three and a half years now and it started as a response to some of the very strange things that were attributed to being banned by the HSE and it was really a way of striking back with the truth.

Sally, we can understand why it might be very frustrating if people believe these myths but is it really a problem?

Well it's a problem for true health and safety if you like because it trivialises what is essentially a very serious subject and where lives are lost. So from the point of view of HSE where we regulate in the public interest and we look after some pretty dangerous stuff, whether it be offshore oil rigs or nuclear power stations it's wrong really that's the phrase health and safety gets associated with trivial matters. It trivialises it.

it must drive you mad!

Well in a way the myth of the month has been really really helpful in starting to differentiate between real health and safety, where people have a sense of proportion, their response is appropriate to the risk, they think about things and I think people are starting to understand there is a very real distinction between proper health and safety and things that are banned or stopped for spurious reasons that have nothing to do with health and safety and may well be to do with insurance requirements or are absolutely nothing to do with HSE.

How do you think these myths get started in the first place?

Well many of them are, they do have a slight grain of truth in them, and that's sometimes difficult but it's often not actually attributable to health and safety. So it's portrayed as that, but the real reason is very different. It may well be that it's an insurance requirement that things have to be done in a particular way or it's just too difficult. I was talking to a colleague of mine yesterday who has children at two secondary schools and they both had accidents and broken their leg. The girl's school said his daughter couldn't go to school because of health and safety. Totally ridiculous. That she was a health and safety risk because she'd broken her leg. His son was given a buddy to carry his gear and help him through doors and look after his crutches and he was able to attend school perfectly normally. So two different approaches from teachers and I suspect sometimes it's just in the too difficult box. It's easier to say "you can't come to school".

So somebody reads something in the media and isn't really sure if it's true, what can they do?

Well, our website has an archive of all the myths so you can certainly look at those. We have a telephone advice line if people want to ring and have health and safety advice. We also have very simple risk assessments. We've just done one for low risk offices that takes less than twenty minutes to do and if you're a low risk business that's all you need to do. You just put a little bit of thought into it. Think about the hazards and the appropriate ways of mitigating them in your office. Not onerous at all. And that's you done.

So Sally, Myth of the Month is making its exit from the website this month but the problem hasn't completely gone away. What's up your sleeve now for tackling it?

Well, we're looking at a number of things and we will continue to do our rebuttals when we see something or we get asked about something that is patently not true we do still have a 'putting the record straight' area on our website so we will continue to do that. And we're looking at ways of, not using the Myth of the Month device through the cartoons etc, but we're really quite excited about things like social media, we use Twitter to put things straight as well so we're moving the concept on into new media. But I do also want to pay tribute to our valiant cartoonist Peter King who has taken some of these ideas and produced some really amusing cartoons over the time that we've turned into postcards, we've had them on the calendar, we've had them on the website, downloadable as posters, they've been very popular. So Peter's done a great job in bringing Myth of the Month to life.

So what's been your favourite Myth of the Month?

Well I'm looking at one which was July 2010 which was "Mr Punch needs a written risk assessment", which was when I first joined HSE that was prevalent and we turned it into a myth the following year. But, oh, unfortunately there's a lot to choose from, whether we ban flip flops or toppings on ice creams or we're the fun police who stop village fetes and all of that. Total myths.

The Health and Safety Executive says children should not play pin the tail on the donkey. (booing) It's far too sharp.

And you can see previous Myths of the Month at hse.gov.uk/myths

Visit the transcript for this podcast episode at hse.gov.uk/podcasts for more information about the issues discussed in this interview.

If you have anything to say on what's been covered in this podcast - or any ideas for tackling health and safety myths - just let us know at hse.gov.uk/podcasts or click on the feedback link at the bottom of any HSE webpage.

Updated 2016-03-01