Health and Safety Myths – Ignorance is not bliss

portrait andy tilleard


EHS Consultant


There is a famous saying often attributed the 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli who said “there are lies, damned lies and statistics” that is often used to cast doubt about information from a particular source or from an opponent such as may be found in political discourse.

Unfortunately, this saying can equally be applied to health and safety stories and how these are often misreported in the media where tabloid headlines can infer that health and safety are out of control when the truth is somewhat different. The issue has been recognised by the UK Health and Safety Executive to the extent that they have (and have had for some time) an area of their excellent website called Myth of the Month 01 in order to better inform the public about the difference between what is reported in the media and the real story behind these headlines.

“There is no shortage of daft decisions being blamed on health and safety. Over the years, the Health and Safety Executive has tackled some quite incredible myths about what health and safety bans or orders people to do. It’s hard to tell where some of these ridiculous and baffling myths originate, but they all have one crucial thing in common – they are not required by health and safety law.”

These stories generate comments such as “health and safety went mad” which of course does us all a huge disservice when ignorance and a lack of knowledge are used to unrealistically assess risk in generally low-risk situations. Inevitably many of these stories get widespread coverage and make great headlines in the papers or on news channels, not because of any actual significant risk but because health and safety is often misunderstood and applied in inappropriate ways. Anyway, let’s take a look at some examples of this infuriating and crazy phenomenon…


“University bans graduates from throwing mortarboards over health and safety concerns”

This bizarre story originated from the University of East Anglia in the UK when the university informed graduating student that they would not be allowed to throw their mortarboard hats into the air after the graduation ceremony, that they should mime throwing these into the air and that the hats would be added into the photographs using computer software.

The university apparently had reports of previous injuries over a number of years due to throwing mortar boards in the air but exactly what these injuries types and their severity were not made clear in the newspaper article.

Of course, this graduation celebration goes on in hundreds of universities across the world every year without any major incidents. It is more likely that universities have more sports injuries to their students every year that at graduation but we never hear of banning football, rugby or any other sport where there is always injury potential.

The UK Health and Safety Executive responded by stating that:

“Health and safety law doesn’t stop graduates having fun and celebrating their success in the time-honoured fashion! The chance of being injured by a flying mortarboard is incredibly small, and when the concern is actually about the hats being returned in good condition, it’s time to stop blaming health and safety.


“Circus acts told to wear hard hats under new EU law”

This story was reported in the UK newspaper The Telegraph back in July 2003 and relates to the Moscow State Circus who were apparently told that by their insurers that they needed some of their performers, such as trapeze artists, acrobats and jugglers to wear hard hats when working above the height of a step ladder.

Apparently, the requirement was from the circus insurers but as we all know, hard hats are a type of personal protective equipment which is the protection of last resort. Any requirement to use PPE was probably not fully risk assessed by a competent person as that would never be the primary control in this situation anyway.

Of course, circus acts, along with theatre and film production activities involving stunts need to follow safety rules and requirements but there are a number of such safety programs in place and guidance documentation available tailored for these industries. For example, in the USA there is the American Circus Educators programme of which the safety of circus performers is an important component.

For film production where hazardous stunts may take place, guidance documents such as the UK HSE document ‘Entertainment Information Sheet No 17 – Stunts-fights and other potentially hazardous production activities’ are available.

Other resources include FEDEC – European Federation of Professional Circus Schools which produces guidance documents 06 on safety and rigging in a circus environment. Of course, this type of circus activity is hazardous but that does not necessarily mean that it is dangerous and to the extent that is possible, the risk is generally managed when following industry guidance on these issues; hard hats have no place in this discussion nor do incompetent risk assessors.


“Kids must wear goggles to play conkers”

This story is related to a school in Cumbria, northern England although it was also reported from a number of other schools in the UK press at the time where the school headmaster thought it was a good idea to have children playing conkers wear industrial safety goggles to minimise that chance of being hit in the eye with pieces of flying conker debris.

“This is one of the oldest chestnuts around, a truly classic myth. A well-meaning head teacher decided children should wear safety goggles to play conkers. Subsequently, some schools appear to have banned conkers on ‘health & safety’ grounds or made children wear goggles or even padded gloves! Realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not worth bothering about. If kids deliberately hit each other over the head with conkers, that’s a discipline issue, not health and safety.”

We know that eye protection personal protective equipment has an important role to place in schools, for example when working in wood or metal working classes or undertaking chemistry experiments but for these items to be used in the playground is a step too far. The unfortunate truth behind this story was the brief but all too realistic comment made by the headmaster in the BBC article when he stated that “It’s just being sensible. We live in a litigious society.” It is an unfortunate truth that the threat of the school being sued by a parent was probably the principle driver for using eye protection rather than for managing significant risk.

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