Lord Young's Health and Safety Review Unsettles Fire Brigades Union

It is no secret that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition Government has waged war on the public deficit – a campaign that has already cut a swath of public spending cuts and is expected to substantially increase the number of unemployed people in the UK. Amid the cuts, Lord Young has been assigned the task of reviewing health and safety laws in order to bring some “sense back into the system”. Over recent years, the media has successfully managed to portray health and safety law in the UK as overbearing legislation drafted by the nanny state; in the process, tabloids have consistently blamed health and safety for event closures, higher insurance premiums, tougher working environments and even child deaths. Following recent comments made by Lord Young in regard to the emergency services, the Fire Brigades Union has voiced its concerns over the Tory peer’s review.

Last month, Lord Young argued that emergency service workers ought to be exempt from health and safety laws on the basis that legal red tape can prevent them from performing their duties effectively. Lord Young said: “Technically speaking, the firemen could say they wouldn’t go to a fire because it was too dangerous. We’ve just got to get sense back into the system”. As perhaps might be expected, Lord Young did not provide any evidence of firemen failing to attend a fire due to concerns about their personal safety. On the contrary, the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Matt Wrack, argued that such an event had not occurred to his knowledge.

Mr Wrack said: “There is no evidence whatsoever that excessive health and safety regulation is, in any way, damaging the ability of the Fire and Rescue Service to respond to emergency incidents”. Therefore, technically speaking, Lord Young supported his belief that emergency service workers ought to be exempt from health and safety laws by describing a situation that has never happened. Mr Wrack added that thirteen fire-fighters had been killed between 2003 and 2007 under purportedly restrictive health and safety laws, whereas no fire-fighters died between 1996 and 2002 as a result of workplace injuries or illnesses. In other words, Lord Young has no reason whatsoever to suggest that fire-fighters would use health and safety guidelines to skip a particularly dangerous job.

Accident claims involving injured fire-fighters are relatively rare in the UK, not least because the courts already accept that fire-fighters knowingly expose themselves to a certain degree of additional risk. Emergency service workers ought not to be exempt from health and safety laws, however, because there is no good reason why a fire-fighter, paramedic or police officer should not be afforded the same legal protection as any other person. Health and safety law does not prevent a fire-fighter from putting out a blaze, or a paramedic from rushing to an injured person’s rescue or a police officer from apprehending a violent offender; nonetheless, such workers should be entitled to pursue personal injury claims if they have suffered injury or illness as a result of somebody else’s negligence.

Mr Wrack concluded: “Fire-fighters respond day in and day out to emergency incidents of all kinds. They have the right to demand the best training, equipment and resources to do so. The only thing threatening our emergency response is the seemingly endless drive to make cuts to front-line emergency cover”.

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