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Crying wolf!

Eight months after Barbados finally promulgated it safety and health legislation, employers are still reviewing their options as to how best to meet the requirements under the law, while maintaining fiscal responsibility in their businesses.

Employers also have to be mindful of the fact that with the introduction of the law, there must also be a monitoring mechanism that will be capable of identifying fraudulent cases or deliberate misuse of the law by employees and employers.

The law was established for the protection of both employee and employer while carrying out the varying activities as required by the job assigned. For example, a news reporter is expected to be able to travel to various locations in order to accurately report on an event. However, during the time of travel to the location, or at the location, there is always a risk factor — no matter how remote it may appear.

These risk factors are sometimes described as job hazards, and must be either planned for or identified very early. Worst case scenarios such as a major traffic accident that occurs involving the same reporter, unruly protest demonstrations and other mass crowd activities — the reporter may get assaulted by persons on location; or the reporter may be assigned to report on a disaster situation.

All of these scenarios come with their own risks to life and property. The law establishes parameters that guide the employer through these risk areas of the job. It clearly suggests that the issues of job safety must be paramount, regardless of the task issued.

While these and many other risk factors are considered on a daily basis by employers, there is still the very unpleasant task left to employers of having to deal with issues of fraudulent claims of safety and health issues as related by the employee.

A recent report released by British safety authorities stated that there seemed to be an increase in what the report labelled as “rubbish claims” by employees. The report stated that many of the claims receive by a national review panel in the British Employment Ministry were frivolous and without merit.

Here are some examples as received by that ministry. You will see that there are similarities with Barbados in the reports:

* A restaurant patron at a Suffolk restaurant saw a young family stopped in their tracks by a sign in a window near the front door. The notice declared “under three year olds are not allowed on the premises or in the restaurant”. The patron, a facilities supervisor, knew there were no health and safety regulations applying to children entering restaurants or takeaways.

Investigations confirmed that this was a case of health and safety being used as an excuse and an over-reaction to an easily controlled risk of unsupervised children in restaurants. Management simply needed to ask parents to control their children while in the premises in order to stop them from running around, a behaviour sometimes seen in Barbadian fast food restaurants. Quoting health and safety legislation as an excuse to control children could not be supported under the law.

* A children’s play centre in Oxfordshire has signs up stating “customers must not consume their own food or drink on the premises due to health and safety reasons”. Unsurprisingly though, customers are allowed to consume hot drinks and cooked meals on the premises as long as they are bought from the play centre’s own cafe.

One disgruntled mother informed the panel which was happy to clarify that no health and safety laws exist that would stand in the way of customers consuming their own food in circumstances as described. The panel believed this was a clear case of commercial motives being conveniently hidden behind the catch-all health and safety excuse.

* Patrons of a Village Hall in Oxfordshire were evidently glad they did not have to get their hands clean by doing the washing up as the Management Committee indicated that putting their hands in soapy suds was a health and safety issue. It had told persons using the hall for private functions, that they must use a dishwasher as a requirement of health and safety.

The ministry’s panel said this was nonsense, as there was no health and safety requirement that would stipulate use of a dishwasher. Therefore whatever the real reason was, the panel said that the wash-up committee should stop misleading the patrons and “come up with a better excuse to get out of doing the dishes!”

* A leading hardware store was not doing itself any favours when it refused to help a customer cut a piece of lumber in the store. The customer had gone to the store to purchase some lumber for home improvements. However, when the wood was too long to fit in the car, the patron asked staff to cut it down to size.

The patron was stunned when the assistant said that it was against health and safety rules. The panel ruled that the company should be fully aware of the risks and how to safely use the tools and equipment they sell, and attributed the case to poor customer service.

* A table tennis table used by factory workers in break times was removed after it was claimed that it was a health and safety risk. The panel declared that there were no health and safety rules that prevent employees playing table tennis in their leisure time. A suitable location is all that was needed.

* One diner who went to a department store in London for breakfast thought that the staff were joking when the patron was told they couldn’t have a fried egg for health and safety reasons. Further probing revealed that someone in another store had left a frying pan on the stove causing a fire, so a decision was made to stop supplying fried eggs in all store restaurants.

The panel said this was a classic case of a misguided response to a problem. Banning the sale of fried eggs would not stop other pans being overheated if staff did not take appropriate care. Fire is a risk when cooking but can be easily managed. The store later admitted it was not a health and safety decision at all, but a matter of company policy.

* A race course steward confiscated an umbrella from a patron because it posed a health and safety risk. The steward told the patron that someone could use it as a weapon. The steward however ignored the fact that when it is raining, umbrellas were allowed.

The panel said that it was not a health and safety issue, while recognising that the race course had a clear policy that stated that they reserved the right to refuse articles being brought into the event. The fact that the steward had judged that the umbrella could be used as a weapon, was inappropriate — it was an issue of security management and not health and safety.

According to British safety and health authorities, the misuse of safety and health legislation has been designated as priority for its personnel; who have been reporting cases of employers and employees misusing the legislation for completely unrelated safety issues.

Discussions with Barbadian authorities have also revealed that while such cases can occur, they are of the opinion that due to the much smaller society it is likely to be less frequent, and more easily spotted either by the consumer or ministry officials.

What happens after it has been reported will be the subject for another column.

More next week…

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