Category Archives: Uncategorized

Breach Birth

In the UK, as in many jurisdictions, there exists the Civil Law concept of individuals seeking compensation for injuries caused (at least partly) by others. In terms of health and safety at work, the typical scenario is when an employee is injured due to some work activity controlled by the employer. There are several types of legal action for compensation open to the injured employee. They will usually at least pursue an action for Negligence. However, if the injury was in some way connected with a breach of a statutory duty (i.e. imposed by legislation) by the employer, then a second avenue may also be possible. This, as you might have guessed, goes by the unimaginative name of the tort of breach of statutory duty (BoSD). BoSD is, in some respects similar to negligence. Indeed, in some countries, breaching a legislative duty is taken as tantamount to negligence. However, a noticeable difference in the UK is that the duty on the employer arises from statute rather than the common law. That means that correct interpretation of the intention of the legislation is extremely important. Special people (called Judges) do this for a living, receiving substantially more than the minimum wage for their troubles.

Some legislation specifically excludes BoSD as actionable, others allow it and yet others say nothing. Until recently, there has been an assumption that BoSD is generally actionable (unless otherwise stated) in health and safety cases. The provision for BoSD was enshrined in section 47 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSW). This is no longer the case. The House of Lords has been quite put out by this and will no doubt resort to fasting in between lavish lunches as a formal protest.

Section 69 (in Part 5) of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 amends HSW to reverse this presumption. So now, unless specific regulations allow it, BoSD is no longer actionable in such cases. This does not affect the ability to pursue a claim for negligence and nor does it affect historical cases. The reason this was changed is allegedly down to employers being too easily targeted by a claims culture and, as a result, fearful of such claims, feeling they have to go way beyond the requirements of the law. The existence of such a culture has been largely debunked as purely perception rather than reality, but this has not derailed the actions of Parliament. Clearly, there is the perception that having both Negligence and BoSD routes makes life too easy for the claimant, encouraging more claims. But the opposite side also hold the view that genuine cases may find it more difficult. I assume they do realise that the law was never meant to be fair…..

PAS the Fire Blanket

You may be aware that British Standards Institute (BSI) have recently revised their fire risk assessment standard –PAS 79. PAS standards for Publicly Accessible Standard and, like all their other standards, is available for a price. Now, you might think we are already swimming in guidance for fire risk assessment. I mean, there’s the very good free stuff (Fire Safety Risk Assessment series) from the UK Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG – another snappy departmental title). Though now elderly (much from 2006) it is still widely used and applicable, not least because it is free, accessible, relatively short (but still helpful detail included in appendices) and focused on specific types of premises. The stepwise approach to fire risk assessment is also broadly consistent with the UK HSE’s five steps to risk assessment (though there is no reason why it shouldn’t be).

On the other hand, PAS 79 is certainly not free; nor is it short at around 120 pages. However, in its favour it uses a good amount of red in its font colour for headings and important notes. Now, that’s the cutting edge of consistency – red, fire, danger. You’d be disappointed if there were no red. And, it has nearly twice as many steps – 9 in fact . I mean, more is always better right? To be fair, those 9 steps are pretty logical: obtain information, identify fire hazards and related existing measures for their control, assess likelihood of fire (based largely on the two preceding steps), determine physical measures for the protection of people (e.g. fire detectors), determine information on fire safety management (e.g. fire drills), assess likely consequence to people in event of fire, (based largely on the previous 2 steps), assess the fire risk (combining likelihood and severity) and evaluate its significance (is it acceptable?), formulate actions to address any identified shortcomings, periodic review.

I personally think there are too many steps and breaking things down in this way can confuse rather than help. You can also be fooled into thinking the steps are temporarily separate, rather than just logically distinct (though what constitutes logical will depend on your mental state). Many of the steps are either dependent or interrelated so can be tackled more efficiently together. For example, quite a few of the steps are data-gathering related but the truth is you also start to formulate your subjective opinion on the adequacy of controls (and any deficiencies) as you progressively gather your data. It’s simply more convenient to do it as you go.

That said, the PAS has some handy checklists/pro-formas included for documenting a fire risk assessment. Since there is so much to look for, checklists are always handy as a starter, so long as the font is in red and you wear a red hard hat and use a red tablet PC to fill them in :)

Hot and Sticky

I recently returned from Bahrain, in the Middle East. I’ve been there quite a few times and, in the open, it was hot and sticky (like toffee, rather than a stick). The British (and also chocolate) are not used to such conditions. I came to thinking what the actual temperature really felt like.

How warm we feel depends on lots of factors – air temperature, wind strength, clothing, exercise, humidity (the measure of how much moisture is in the air). Some of these are obvious – given the same air temperature, heat feels more bearable when it is windy (wind chill), the humidity is low and we are not performing some strenuous exercise. “Dry heat” seems more bearable than “wet heat”.

Generally, as we all know, all other things being equal, the higher the humidity, the warmer it feels. That’s because it makes sweating (one of the body’s heat loss mechanisms) less effective. Humidity isn’t that important at ordinary comfortable temperatures (< 26°C according to ISO 7730). It’s only when you get outside the comfort range that it has a more marked effect.

Absolute humidity can be defined in several ways but essentially it’s how much water vapour is in the air. This changes with air temperature. Often, for convenience, we tend to use “relative humidity” instead, which is a simple ratio of the water content compared to how much the air could hold if it were totally saturated with water vapour (and could hold no more). It’s usually expressed as a percentage, which is always nice because finance people understand that kind of thing.

Because scientists, like the Police, love investigating things, several people have come up with handy tables to look up what the temperature effectively feels like to the average human as the humidity varies. Some have even tried to develop equations so the result can easily be calculated. The equations are not exact; the numerical methods used lead to a rather inelegant multi-variable equation, of which there are several variants. People have done this with all sorts of factors, like the wind velocity too.

But, in Bahrain, there was no wind, relative humidity was 80% and the temperature was 38°C in the shade. Using the handy online Heat Index calculator incorporating these equations, gives me a calculated effective temperature of 71°C. The actual figure may not be that accurate, but, either way, that’s going to feel pretty hot and not bearable for long without air conditioning. It’s quite interesting that it’s not until the relative humidity drops to around 25%, that the effective temperature reflects the actual temperature. Below this humidity, the effective temperature starts to feel cooler than the actual temperature. Now I’m back in the UK, I have no such problems….

Pi in the Sky Technology for the class room

Well now I have one, a raspberry pi, model B. You may be wondering what it is. Some culinary delight, perhaps? No, it’s a computer, but not as you know it. It’s also become insanely popular (among a small population of, admittedly, mainly men with ponytails who seem to say “awesome” quite a lot). Computers are ubiquitous in training (in fact in most areas of life) and trainers like to travel light (because they have so much other stuff to carry). Low profile, light laptops have obvious manual handling advantages too. But netbooks, iPads and to a certain extent iPhones, Galaxies and Android-based phones are filling the space. But they lack that certain something….and since Raspberry Pi is up and coming, I decided to see whether it might be any use in training.

At the risk of turning this into a techy journal, I should at least describe what it is. The raspberry pi is a somewhat basic computer board that costs around £30. It’s about the size of a pack of playing cards but much lighter. It’s somewhat stark, rugged electronics – though cases are available or make your own. It will not work out of the box. I needed to add a power supply (a decent 5V micro-USB phone charger will do it), USB compact keyboard/mouse and borrow a TV/monitor. Connection is via HDMI (digital video/audio) cable, so you’ll need a VGA converter for older devices/data projectors, a bit like the one I have for my iPhone (I discovered simple connector adapters don’t work for digital output; you need a converter containing a box of tricks to do a proper job).

The operating system sits on an SD card that slots in beneath, so you need to buy that too. I bought my OS pre-loaded on a 16 GB SD card, but you can just buy the card and load the OS yourself using another computer. I also did the latter with an alternative OS – it’s free and relatively painless. The board also comes with a network port for wired internet access (but you can buy a wireless dongle) and several other interfaces. Obviously all this adds up to closer to £50, excluding the TV (and the OS is free). I also added a powered USB hub which is handy to plug in extra memory sticks, as the Pi only comes with 2 USB ports.

I first started with the recommended OS. This is a lithe, slim version of Linux, called Raspbian “Wheezy” (yes, really). So, it is a relative of UNIX and Mac OS. Microsoft Windows will not run on this hardware, so don’t even try it. When you switch it on, don’t get your hopes up. Real world performance has been likened to a 300 MHz Pentium II computer. So, it’s not quick by modern standards, but that’s largely because modern software has become much more resource hungry (well, ok, obese). The challenge therefore is to install slim, undemanding OS and software to make it reasonably fast. It does initially boot into a windows type environment (but is far quicker if you drop back down into a command line interface (CLI) – a bit like the Windows Command Prompt. It comes with some basic software already installed (including programming software) but with access to an extensive repository of free packages.

I am not a stranger to Linux, running Ubuntu OS on another computer, so the environment and CLI are familiar. The location of the repositories is already set for you, so, provided you are connected to the web, it is quite easy to load new software, using the “sudo apt-get install” command. You can search what’s available using “sudo apt-cache search” followed by the name of something you are looking for. I installed a basic word processor called Abiword quite easily (it’s a bit like an older version of Word). Major components of OpenOffice or LibreOffice were not yet available in the repository for this version of Raspbian. I therefore couldn’t install Impress (the LibreOffice version of PowerPoint) to test out my slides. But that will come soon enough.

I also tried a different OS, called Raspbmc (Raspberry Media Centre). This is quite different and is biased very much towards using the Pi as a media centre, such as for playing videos (including YouTube), displaying pictures and access to facebook. It has a very pleasing, intuitive and modern interface. It is extremely easy to add software (called “add ons”) – just select to install. But it seems slow. You can drop out into the CLI but that defeats the object.

Of the two versions, I can see the media centre having some use in class. But on balance, I prefer the flexibility of the Raspbian OS, if and when I can display slides. But there are many other OSs to try.

If you want a cheap, very light computer that you don’t mind messing with, the Pi might work for you. Will it work as a laptop replacement? No – it’s portable but not really mobile. But it’s passable as a very cheap, portable media centre with an incredibly small footprint. It’s fun too. Building your computer in front of a class will at least be a talking point.

But this is an emerging gadget that seems to have captured the imagination of many, including software developers. I know that means things will quickly develop. I hear too that soon there will be a version of Android OS (another variant of Linux) available for the Pi. Android is currently one of the world’s leading smartphone operating systems. Just like the iPhone OS, it has access to an app store – so it is extendable in an almost infinite number of ways. That may improve things and make it even easier to use. Gooseberry (don’t laugh) is another Pi-like board which has revealed itself but is rarer still. It is however more powerful but similarly priced to the Pi. So, you could have a fruit sundae or a Summer pudding.

The icing on cake is the realisation that Britain’s Cycling team have just won Olympic gold at the Velodrome. Now if that doesn’t make you rush out and buy some Pi I don’t know what will.

It’s a fair cop

Since my last blog entry I’ve acquired an auto-darkening welding visor. This has been magnificent and I’ve been welding almost anything that isn’t already, well, welded. I think I may be addicted. My joy is boundless. Since the visor, by design, also absorbs those all important UV rays, I may resort to wearing it on the beach. Oh the things you can get away with when you wear a mask….

I’ve also been knocking together a computer controlled laser pointer, using some old bits and bobs. If I mount it on my shoulder, like a parrot, and wear the visor, I think I could just about pass as the alien warrior in Predator. But how will I ever know whether I’m working within the law?

Anyway, that brings me to the subject of ACoPs. In line with the Lofstedt review, HSE are considering chopping or modifying a whole load of approved codes of practice (ACOPs). ACOPs hold a special place in UK law. In short, they both explain what the law intended to say and also translate complicated legal speak into tangible examples of what it would look like in practice. This is supposed to give confidence to employers that they are doing enough (or not, as the case may be). But, ACoPs can be used in evidence in criminal cases. As a result, they are not flights of fancy into what they might like to see but rather somewhat clipped pronouncements.

HSE is striving to be more and more realistic and, in line with current government campaigns, remove unnecessary burdens on business. The tick is to maintain standards of safety at the same time. HSE have been making headway into translating sometimes vague legal requirements into proportionate practical tools for low risk workplaces.

For those of you who have read an ACOP, it can sometimes leave you no clearer than reading the unadulterated legislation itself. If that is the case then it has failed to achieve its objective – to make the law’s intentions more concrete. In amongst many proposed consolidations of ACoPs (often a good thing, even if making it easier to find where stuff is), one particular ACoP is identified for possible removal altogether – that for the Management Regulations. This has appalled some people. It’s tantamount to getting rid of the British Monarchy. The problem is that this ACoP is pretty vague. But this is understandable because so are the regulations; this is because the subject matter (management) is also vague and woolly, when compared to, say, machinery guarding. There are myriad ways and approaches of effectively managing businesses, so all that is discussed is principals. Nice, but probably not that much help compared to say a self-help group. HSE have recognised that essentially it does not add much to what is already available and therefore probably also falls short of what is expected of an ACoP – giving confidence that you know whether you are within the law.

So, I think HSE have taken a brave and honest step (and no, I’m not using the civil service code for ‘a mistake’).

One somewhat strange part of the consultation is the consideration of imposing an arbitrary 32 page limit on the length of an ACoP. This, whilst well intended, is, I think, ill conceived. Whilst brevity is laudable, if it fights against the intention of clarity, usability and practicality, then it has missed the point. Instead, there should be a range of quality standards (like usability) applied. Sure, length can be a consideration, but that will depend on the complexity of the legislation.

On the whole, it’s a fair cop, guv.