Monthly Archives: April 2012

How many experts does it take to change a lightbulb?

Very recently I had trouble with the daytime running lights on my car. Combination of a blown fuse and a blown bulb. I happened to be consulting the owner’s manual to get an idea on how to access to the headlamp assembly. It was pretty simple, removing a rubber cover, twisting out the old bulb and replacing with a new one. What astounded me was the stance of the manufacturer. Firstly, the manual stated (and I quote) “changing the vehicle bulbs requires considerable technical skill”. It suggested you have the car dealer do this if you “didn’t feel confident” (a statement which seems designed to create doubt in your mind).

The reality is that changing a bulb is (and was) child’s play. It is simple and straightforward. If this is the definition of “considerable technical skill” I would think only a handful of people on the planet would even be allowed to drive the car. I am hoping this is purely the usual risk aversion or liability reduction and not some cynical attempt to refer everything to the dealer for financial gain.

The owners manual has similar warnings about removing and recharging the vehicle battery (actually suggesting you should take the battery to the dealer to have them recharge it for you!). All of this, in my mind, is simple car maintenance and not something for which dealers should even be considered unless it happens to be convenient. I mean, it is not as if spare bulbs and battery chargers are hard to come by. Some countries even legally require the driver to carry a spare bulb kit with them in the car.

This attitude of fearing to do anything that is vaguely ‘technical’ in case it goes wrong is difficult to understand. Such people are prey to ‘experts’ who may well not even give the care and attention that the owner would. There is a very healthy sub-culture of men and women doing their own vehicle maintenance. A thriving industry of vehicle repair manuals (e.g. ‘Haynes’) and replacement parts testifies to this. This is especially so with motorcycles, where there are far fewer dealers and repair shops so owners sometimes have little choice but to tackle repairs themselves. There is also very much a culture of modifying and upgrading (and a ready supply of aftermarket parts and installation advice to support this). But this is character building and rewarding. Yes, you can get it wrong, but with a decent workshop manual and tools, you get there in the end. Supremely, it builds confidence and this then changes your perception of risk. In some respects, it gets put back in perspective.

For example, it is very easy, and understandable to be apprehensive or even horrified that anyone should change their own brake pads. I mean, it’s safety critical isn’t it? It would be reckless to tackle it yourself surely? But actually, once you have done it, you realise how easy it is to do (OK, a workshop manual, a torque wrench and some copper grease are really doing most of the work…). There are simple steps to check that the brakes work too, before you set off. But one might also argue that changing a wheel is also safety critical – you might forget to tighten all the wheel nuts; the car might collapse on you whilst changing the wheel. But most people would have a very different view of that – it’s a simple job to do, the alternative is we are stranded with a flat tyre, so we are prepared to accept the risk.

I am not saying that expert mechanics are not worth their weight in gold – a good one certainly is. If you know one, stick with them. I’m just saying that the practise of falsely labelling something as requiring exceptional skill (when it plainly doesn’t) undermines a person’s ability to grow, develop and get confidence through trying something new. I’m not suggesting that people should be reckless either but rather have a bit more back bone and appreciation of what they are capable of. It’s a thin line between being overconfident and knowing your own limitations. But better that than scared to change a lightbulb.

Playing to the Gallery?

Playing to the Gallery?

Is it me, or are the radical reforms to health and safety proving to be all smoke and mirrors?

Way back in June 2010, when the coalition was newly formed, David Cameron appointed Lord Young of Graffham to conduct a review of health and safety law and practice. The Young report was published later that year. It was wide-ranging, though whether it was fully comprehensive and evidence-based is a matter of opinion.

Lord Young was very clear in focusing his attention on the issue of the compensation culture, stating that fear of litigation (and the associated costs) was a major driver in many risk-averse decisions taken by business, schools and other organisations. He also stated that much of the fear was caused by a perception that litigation is easy and that a claimant will always win.

“…I believe that a ‘compensation culture’ driven by litigation is at the heart of the problems that so beset health and safety today.”

Foreword to the Young report

Lord Young wasn’t telling those in power anything that they didn’t know already. A report by the Better Regulation Task Force (an independent government advisory group) called Better Routes to Redress said much the same thing in 2004:

“It is this perception that causes the real problem: the fear of litigation impacts on behaviour and imposes burdens on organisations trying to handle claims. The judicial process is very good at sorting the wheat from the chaff, but all claims must still be assessed in the early stages. Redress for a genuine claimant is hampered by the spurious claims arising from the perception of a compensation culture. The compensation culture is a myth; but the cost of this belief is very real.”

Foreword to Better Routes to Redress

Following on from Lord Young’s report came the Löfstedt report, with a far narrower remit; health and safety regulation and Approved Codes of Practice. This report was far more evidence-based and made a series of practical recommendations. Whether you believe that all of the recommendations are completely justified and sound is, again, a matter of opinion.

Professor Löfstedt was of the view that there are no major problems with the legislative framework as it stands:

“I have concluded that, in general, there is no case for radically altering current health and safety legislation. The regulations place responsibilities primarily on those who create the risks, recognising that they are best placed to decide how to control them and allowing them to do so in a proportionate manner. There is a view across the board that the existing regulatory requirements are broadly right, and that regulation has a role to play in preventing injury and ill health in the workplace. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that proportionate risk management can make good business sense.”

Foreword to the Löfstedt Report

Many of his recommendations will take significant work (mostly by or involving the HSE) to implement. Professor Löfstedt was at pains to point out that resources would be an issue if his demanding deadlines were to be met.

But even when all of the Löfstedt recommendations have been implemented there will be little change for most businesses, organisations or the men and women working in them. Many of the regulatory changes involve consolidating or revoking out-of-date or sector specific regulations. The exemption for the self-employed will make little or no practical difference to most self-employed workers (who don’t bother anyway). In short, I can’t see that it will make much difference for most of us.

Because Löfstedt’s focus was on the regulations, many of the recommendations do little or nothing to address the cultural problems that were identified by the Young and BRTF reports.

Maybe I’m getting cynical in my old age, but I can’t help but think that the Löfstedt report (however well prepared) is simply an example of politicians playing to the gallery. Health and safety law will always be there in some way, shape or form and organisations just have to accept this fact. Just like tax, accounts, consumer protection, employment law, etc.

But if you Google (other search engines are available) “David Cameron and health and safety” you might get the impression that the Prime Minister is abolishing the lot:

“I don’t think there is any one single way you can cut back the health and safety monster…You have got to look at the quantity of rules, and we are cutting them back. You have got to look at the way they are enforced, and we are making sure that is more reasonable.”

Guardian online, 5th January 2012

“So one of the Coalition’s New Year resolutions is this: kill off the health and safety culture for good. I want 2012 to go down in history not just as Olympics year or Diamond Jubilee year, but the year we banished a lot of this pointless time-wasting from the economy and British life once and for all.”

London Evening Standard, 5th January 2012

Perhaps the PM has recognised that kicking health and safety is popular. Perhaps he is discovering that tackling the compensation culture, with the well-heeled self-interest groups that this might inconvenience, is difficult. Perhaps he has discovered that chucking a shed-load of work at the HSE (who can’t say no) is an easier option.

For the HSE themselves, there appears to be a huge job to do following Löfstedt. But most of that work is doable. Indeed some of the things recommended were already there but perhaps not as clearly signposted as they might have been. For example, I can’t be the only person to have noticed that the HSE are attempting to raise the profile of their myth-buster webpages. Anyone who visits the HSE website will know that the myth-busters have been there for years.

My worry is not that the HSE have a difficult task ahead of them, or that they might have to change or revoke some regulations. My worry is that the PM fails to show true leadership and a clear vision in tackling the key issue identified by Lord Young and others. He may instead continue to deliver mixed messages and perpetuate the very myths and nonsense that have got us here in the first place.

For example, it’s a shame he hadn’t looked at the myth-buster site before he went off on one of his anti-health and safety rants:

“Talk of health and safety can too often sound farcical or marginal. People think of children being given goggles to play conkers, or trainee hairdressers being banned from using scissors.”

London Evening Standard, 5th January 2012

Judith Hackitt’s eyes must have rolled skywards at that one.

My message to the PM is pretty simple: stop playing to the gallery. Give a more truthful view of the reports that your advisors have given you. Start talking about the real successes of health and safety regulation in the UK over the years. We have arguably the best health and safety standards in Europe and many nations around the world envy those standards and seek to replicate them.

In your foreword to Lord Young’s report you state:

“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.”

Until you tackle the perception that this is the case, nothing will change.

Comfort Food – Learning Just What We Need to Pass the Exam

You may have noticed some recent news about the shock students going to University face. Some clever people at Cambridge Assessment have done a bit of research. I know what you’re thinking, that might just mean they asked a few people on the bus, which technically is still research, even if it isn’t that representative. But, it did take them 18 months, so give them some credit.

The basic theme is that some pre-university courses can be far too modularised and exam focussed. What this means is that people learn a topic, take the exam and then forget it, moving on to the next one. Dare I say, it was not like that in my day in 1872. Queen Victoria was still on the throne and teaching had to be far more integrated because the exams were not modularised to the same extent. Of course education was widely available to all in those days (except the poor, those without a large mansion in the countryside and people who disagreed with the government). So, at least 50 people a year received education.
I have some sympathy with just teaching to the exam. On the surface, it seems entirely reasonable. I mean why learn what you don’t need and why retain it for longer than you have to? If the exam doesn’t test understanding much either, why bother even understanding it?

As it happens, there are many good reasons why. A singular focus on an exam, combined with limited time and our innate desire to avoid pain, can lead to only ‘learning what you need for the exam’. Whilst learning frequently involves exams (or some other assessment) it’s as well to remember that the exam is not an end in itself. The purpose of learning is to improve or acquire new skills, understanding etc in order to do stuff (like earn a living, create something, self actualise or just survive the next round of redundancies). Fundamentally we learn in order to change (for the better). Learning stuff is not just about memorising (though it will involve that). If you just memorise a whole load of unconnected stuff without understanding how it fits together, it gets rather confused and foggy and it may lead us to the dark side. The mind seems to like to at least partially organise and rationalise stuff and will make up whatever seems reasonable if we are missing key bits (like a conscience).

This can lead to people who are not very good at analysis, problem solving and thinking things through when they meet new situations on their own. That’s because they haven’t been taught underlying principles of how things work and nor can they apply those transferable problem solving skills (because they haven’t practised them). They are instead often just cramming information into their heads to get the exam out the way. But as I said, I have a lot of sympathy with students who are up against time pressure and the demands of, well, a demanding, job.

It is no surprise that Cambridge Assessment therefore recommend some changes that mean things like incorporating into teaching and exam system more critical thinking, exploration, independent study and reading round the subject.

My experience when teaching is that some students frequently ask ‘do I need this for the exam?’. Whilst this is understandable, we need to think more widely than the exam. Doing activities which develop understanding can be exacting; they may also go beyond the specific information content you need for an exam question. However, it will help you recognise the scenario described in the exam question for what it is and also help you understand, analyse and solve problems in real life (well, as real as a safety professional is ever likely to see).