‘Health and Safety gone mad’? Think again

MaeveSherlock-2-4x3.jpgMaeve Sherlock on the background to the Mesothelioma Bill and its potential legacy 

There are days when the papers seem to be full of ‘Health and Safety gone mad’ stories. We’ve all read them: the charity shop that refused to stock knitting needles; the school that banned kids from playing football; the airline passenger told to stop sucking a sweet – all on health and safety grounds. 

Dig underneath such stories however, and you’ll find that some turn out not to be true, others are exaggerated and many of the rest were based on a misunderstanding of law or fear of being sued.  But what they do leave us with is a sense that health and safety is basically the bureaucrat’s tool of choice to stop anyone having fun.   

Then there are days when you come across stories about a total absence of health and safety and it all feels a bit different. 

I’ve been reading up on mesothelioma – a particularly cruel disease caused by exposure to asbestos.  It’s what’s called a ‘long-latency’ disease, which means that people may not be diagnosed until 30 or 40 years after the exposure. It is fatal and most sufferers are dead within a year of diagnosis. Victims can pursue their former employers for compensation but sometimes the employer has gone out of business and the company which provided the Employer’s Liability Insurance can’t be traced.

This is the background to the Mesothelioma Bill, which has its Second Reading in the House of Lords this evening. The Bill proposes the creation of a fund of last resort, paid for by insurers, to compensate people with the disease who can’t get redress from their employer or the employer’s insurer. It also contains proposals to improve the mechanisms for tracing employers from long ago.  

In February 2010, the last Labour government started a consultation about the best way to deal with the problem. Last summer, the Coalition issued a response to that consultation and then announced their legislative plans in the Queen’s Speech. We strongly support the principle of the Bill but we will use its passage to probe the detail.  We will also want answers to some of the questions that have been raised, such as why the scheme only covers mesothelioma and not other long tail diseases, and why it will only be open to people diagnosed from July 2012. 

All that said, we’re committed to the Bill getting through Parliament without undue delay, so that all mesothelioma sufferers and their dependents can get help as soon as possible. 

Since starting to work on this Bill, I have learned a lot about the terrible pain and distress caused by this awful disease. And that people contracted it following exposure to asbestos in all kinds of circumstances: not just on construction sites but in a variety of buildings including hospitals. One person even contacted me on Twitter to say that her stepfather got it as a result of time spent on board naval ships.

Times have changed and although asbestos is still very much around, it is generally better understood and managed. But we cannot be complacent. Not only do we owe it to the victims to ensure they all get the compensation they are due, but we need to ensure current employers in all sectors provide a safe working environment for their staff.  

And next time you read a story about ‘Health and Safety gone mad’, let’s remember this legacy of the days when there was precious little of either in many a workplace. 

Baroness Maeve Sherlock is a member of Labour’s Shadow DWP team in the House of Lords

Published 20th May 2013

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