Health and safety: Report calls for reform as Tate closes art exhibit

The Tate Modern was forced to close the sunflower seed exhibit due to health concerns
The Tate Modern was forced to close the sunflower seed exhibit due to health concerns

By Ian Dunt

In a fitting piece of timing, a new review into Britain's health and safety laws has been published just as the Tate Modern closed off its recent sunflower seed exhibit due to health concerns.

The popular piece by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was considered a risk due to its 100 million porcelain sunflower seeds. Officials said there were concerns over visitors inhaling ceramic dust.

Art lovers will now be forced to gaze at the piece from the buildings bridge, but will not be able to walk over it and explore its complexity as the artist intended.


Health and safety review in full

A Tate spokesperson said: "Although porcelain is very robust, the enthusiastic interaction of visitors has resulted in a greater than expected level of dust in the Turbine Hall.

"Tate has been advised that this dust could be damaging to health following repeated inhalation over a long period of time. In consequence, Tate, in consultation with the artist, has decided not to allow visitors to walk across the sculpture."

The decision comes on the same day as a long-awaited review into health and safety encouraged a return to "common sense" in the management of risk in Britain.

Lord Young, trade and industry secretary under Margaret Thatcher, was asked to carry out the review in June.

"For too long, health and safety has been allowed to become a joke in the media and among the public," he said.

"It's about time it was taken seriously. I believe that the best way to do this is to ease the burden in places where health and safety is not an issue, and to discourage the compensation culture that has spread fear of litigation throughout our society.

"I believe my recommendations will be an important step towards restoring civil liberties, shredding red tape and making sure that health and safety rules are properly applied and respected."

The 'Common Sense, Common Safety' review also looked at 'compensation culture' and guidelines governing school trips.

The review proposes a single consent form for all children's activities in school so teachers do not have fill in endless forms if they decide to arrange a school trip.

Referral agencies and personal injury lawyers would have their operations restricted. Lord Young also called for the restrictions on the "volume and type" of advertising of 'no-win-no-fee' firms.

It suggested that the Road Traffic Accident Personal Injury Scheme - a simplified claim scheme for accidents under £10,000 conducted on a fixed costs basis - be expanded to include other personal injury claims, allowing for a basic, three-step procedure to for low value claims.

The review also contained plans, possibly through legislation, to clarify that people will not be held liable for any consequences due to well-intentioned voluntary acts on their part.

The risk assessment procedure for low hazard workplaces such as offices, classrooms and shops would be radically simplified and employers would be exempt from conducting risk assessments for employees working from home in a "low hazard" environment.

Lord Young tackled criticisms that the insurance industry, rather than regulation, was predominantly to blame for health and safety culture with an aggressive approach to insurance firms.

Insurance companies should cease current requirements for businesses operating in low hazard environments to employ health and safety consultants to carry out assessments, the review argued.

It also called for a consultation with insurance companies to ensure "worthwhile activities" are not unnecessarily curtailed on health and safety grounds.

"Insurance companies should draw up a code of practice on health and safety for businesses and the voluntary sector. If the industry is unable to draw up such a code, then legislation should be considered," the review argued.

Officials from local authorities who ban events on health and safety grounds should put their reasons in writing, Lord Young recommended.

Local authorities would be forced to conduct an internal review of all refusals on the grounds of health and safety and citizens should be able to refer unfair decisions to the ombudsman, with a fast track process ensuring that decisions can be overturned within two weeks.

If appropriate, the Ombudsman would be able to award damages where it is not possible to reinstate an event.

In general, Lord Young argued for the current raft of health and safety regulations to be consolidated into a single set of accessible regulations.

In a bid to ensure consistency in the implementation of health and safety legislation Lord Young proposed that workplace assessment consultants undertake professional qualifications and feature on an online database.

David Cameron was already known to be an advocate of reducing the number of health and safety regulations in the UK.

The prime minister was not averse to mocking health and safety regulation in speeches as opposition leader, repeatedly laughing at a story of school boys being asked to play conkers wearing goggles in case they damage their eyes.

"Good health and safety is vitally important. But all too often good, straightforward legislation designed to protect people from major hazards has been extended inappropriately to cover every walk of life, no matter how low risk," Mr Cameron said today.

"A damaging compensation culture has arisen, as if people can absolve themselves from any personal responsibility for their own actions, with the spectre of lawyers only too willing to pounce with a claim for damages on the slightest pretext.

"We simply cannot go on like this. That's why I asked Lord Young to do this review and put some common sense back into health and safety. And that's exactly what he has done."

But the issue is clearly one which infuriates key sections of the public as well. Many of the responses to the 'Your Freedom' website consist of angry repudiations of health and safety culture.

Advocates of the regulations insist that the rules have modernised Britain and protected hundreds of thousands of workers, predominantly in manual labouring jobs, over the years.

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber said today's review could have suggested ways to save even more lives.

"The review's recommendations are predictable but a grave disappointment all the same," he said.

"The report contains not a single proposal that will reduce the high levels of workplace death, injuries and illness. Every year in the UK over 20,000 people die prematurely as a result of their work.

"Yet instead of looking for ways of preventing people being killed and injured, the report uncritically accepts the myths and preconceptions surrounding health and safety, and focuses on dealing with a compensation culture which the government accepts does not exist.

"Health and safety is not a throwback to a previous century, or an issue that only affects heavy industry. It is just as much an issue for offices and shops - workplaces that Lord Young dismisses as 'low risk', despite the evidence of high levels of work-related ill-health in these sectors."

Lord Young is said to consider the review as merely the first stage in an attempt to roll out his 'common sense' approach to British work and social life.

He will continue to work across departments to ensure his recommendations are carried through, the government insisted.

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