3 things HSE must do to end the zero risk childhood

HSE web page Myth of the month - Egg boxes are banned in craft lessonsJudith Hackitt, head of the Health and Safety Executive, was right recently when she said that the muddle about health and safety cannot be laid solely at her door. To take one example: no credible organisation has ever advised that egg boxes and toilet roll holders should be banned from the classroom. The HSE itself has labelled the ban one of its ‘myths of the month’. Yet despite this, many early years teachers and childcarers are convinced that egg boxes are a biological risk too far.

However, the HSE remains at the very centre of the mess. It was borne out of pre and postwar workplace tragedies, when far too many employees were being maimed or killed due to management negligence and exploitation. Its culture and ways of working are still rooted in the factory setting. Here, the basic ‘risk is bad’ approach – work out the main risks, and take steps to reduce them – remains sound.

The problem is that places where children learn are not like factories. For instance, in a workplace, there is no good reason to have a rope bridge. It is simply an unnecessary hazard. Yet in a playground, a rope bridge is a positive asset. It forces children to weigh up the risks and decide for themselves whether or not they are brave enough to cross.

Children learn from their own efforts, and from their mistakes. If we try too hard to keep them safe, we starve them of the very experiences that they need if they are to learn how to deal with the everyday ups and downs of life. In other words, not all risk is bad.

To her credit, Hackitt has recognised this crucial insight. But the HSE has so far failed to figure out what it means. The central point – the need to balance protection against experience and learning – is missing. What is also missing is the message that doing this needs thought, sound judgement and the confidence that you are not inevitably going to get hammered if the worst happens and a child suffers real harm.

The HSE needs to do three things to show it means business. First, it needs to actively promote risk management methods that take a balanced approach: that help people weigh up risks against benefits. Risk benefit assessment (RBA) – an approach that we in the play industry have been using for some years – does this. While the HSE has made supportive statements about RBA, it has yet to embrace it as the right approach in learning contexts. By contrast, its own preferred method – 5 steps to risk assessment – does not even mention benefits.

Second, HSE needs to accept that in many walks of life, managing risk means making value judgements when the outcomes are by definition uncertain. This is a complex process that simply cannot be reduced to guidelines, procedures and checklists. The recent slimmed-down guidance for schools is helpful – but unless schools are also helped to embrace risk and uncertainty with confidence, they will simply cry out for more guidance (as the teaching unions have already done).

Third, HSE needs to respond more fairly on the inevitable (and rare) occasions when tragedies happen. Sometimes, even good risks can hurt, maim or kill. In the playground and outdoor activity sectors the belief is widely held that, for all Judith Hackitt’s welcome words, when a child is seriously injured or dies, such statements will count for nothing. Instead, they fear that HSE investigators will turn CSI and not stop until they have found some failing – no matter how minor or marginal – that allows them to point the finger of blame.

The Government, in its ringing endorsement of the Young Review has given the strongest signal that it wants a more proportionate, thoughtful, balanced approach. My colleagues and I are working with the HSE to take forward the review’s recommendations. We will only be satisfied when HSE is crystal clear that what is needed is nothing less than a new philosophy: one that truly embraces risk, uncertainty and real challenge – even real danger – as essential ingredients of a rounded childhood.

[Note: this is a rewrite of a comment piece of mine published by the Guardian on 5 July 2011. This version focuses on the role of the HSE.]

11 responses to “3 things HSE must do to end the zero risk childhood

  1. Can I be the first to leave a comment?

    ‘Zero risk childhood’ = High risk of obesity, mental health problems, and lack of fitness. So not zero risk at all.

    Like the website!

  2. Hello Tim

    The revamped website is refreshing and it’s quite an opening blog post to focus on HSE!

    It’s an interesting paradox – the HSE appear to blame everyone for using them as an excuse rather than reflecting on what proactive work they can undertake to mitigate this. At the moment, I feel there’s a lot of reactive responses. The Myth of the Month section on their website has been discontinued which is a shame as this was popular and helpful.

    So yes – HSE could do more and what can we all do to encourage this organisation to do this?

    Best wishes

    • Tim,

      As you know I have had some fascinating long-term interactions with HSE, such as the Adventure Activities Licensing Service, for which I am Head of Inspection. Grappling with opposing views, or at least apparently opposing views on risk is not new to me.

      I argue that the Adventure Activity sector, at least, needs to take a wider perspective on the issue of risk whilst acknowledging that HSE, because of its mandate inherent in the Health and Safety at Work Act, by necessity must take a much narrower one. A lot of it is to do with language.

      No parent, teacher, activity provider is likely to say ‘yes’ in answer to the question “Are you prepared to risk the safety of a child in your care?” However, ask those same people a slightly different question, such as “Do you think he child in your care should be exposed to challenges whilst in your care” the answer is almost bound to be ‘yes’. Now all we have to do is define what we mean by ‘challenge’. In various articles, such as Language of Change I have defined it as having (at least) 5 key elements.
      1. A chance of benefit gain.
      2, A risk of loss or harm.
      3. Careful goal setting. Russian roulette is not a challenge, by this definition.
      4. A willingness to participate. If its not entered into willingly its not a challenge, its servitude!
      5. Physical or emotional activity outside the comfort zone.

      Thus risk is an inherent part of challenge, but they are not synonymous. You can however replace the word ‘risk’ with ‘challenge’ in almost every one of Tim’s original arguments without in any way changing their meaning, only the extent to which the argument becomes socially acceptable. Children need challenge in order to develop. It is self-evident and manifestly socially acceptable. But because ‘risk of loss or harm’ is an INHERENT part of a challenge, we cannot cherry pick some parts and discard the rest.

      There is no notion of this in the Health and Safety at Work Act, and so, not surprisingly, no notion of it in HSE’s narrow concept of risk reduction. Of course parents, teachers, and others recognize that accident prevention is only PART of keeping a child safe. They need, for example, to develop awareness, judgment, tolerance, even resilience. And keeping a child or young person safe is only part of nurturing their well-being. Love and attention, good relationships with friends and families, a sense of belonging and physical contentment are also essential ingredients. And finally well-being is only PART of happiness which many authorities, from the Dali Lama to the New Economics Foundation, acknowledge as perhaps the highest of human aspirations.

      We simply need to take the moral high ground when it comes to choosing the vocabulary of engagement. Challenge not risk, risk-benefit assessment not Risk Assessment, and well-being not accident prevention.

  3. Nicola, Julia, Marcus – thanks for your comments, and for the feedback on the new site.
    Marcus – will ponder your ‘risk or challenge’ debate. I veer towards reclaiming risk, partly because it meshes with the ‘risk assessment’ mindset, which can then be overturned and remodelled for the forces of good by adding in benefits – as in RBA of course. So I agree with you (and in answer to your question Juliet): we need to get HSE properly on board with RBA. Which means bringing home to them just how widespread and damaging the ‘risk reduction’ mentality is amongst educators.

  4. Back in the day, the phrase in the outdoor sector was ‘apparent risk’ – that is to say an activity which felt risky enough to a participant to be a real challenge, but which was being managed by an expert practitioner to minimise the actual risk. For example, a leap of faith across a 2m gap on a high ropes course feels risky, but with harnessing and helmeting actual risk is minimal.
    ‘No fear’ is such a great title and theme. I remember Marcus reassuring a group of independent schools teachers at our annual ISAAA conference that to get into the place of being prosecuted for outdoor malpractice you literally had to kick the door down. Only those hell bent on acting contrary to the norms of an average prudent parent end up in court.

    • John – thanks for the comment. I have heard Marcus say similar things. We have also discussed the idea of ‘apparent risk’ which you mention. My view is that there is an important place for ‘real risk’ – in other words, risks that are real, and that have to be managed by the child or young person (an example being the unaccompanied expedition part of the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme). For 2 reasons: first, children themselves are often aware of the difference between apparent and real risk. Second, in real life, there isn’t always an adult on hand to minimise the residual risk. Taking your ‘leap of faith’ example: it feels frightening, but at the same time children know there’s no need for them to take real responsibility – they simply need to overcome the fear. That link between real risk and responsibility is vital, I think. I argue for it in my report Nothing Ventured, which you may have seen – if not, you can download it here .

  5. Its language again!

    Whilst there are different types of risk, and different words for them, there are also different perspectives on the same outcome, and different words for them.

    Take ‘acceptable’ and ‘tolerable’.

    No parent, spouse or child will ever consider that the death of a loved one in a road traffic was ‘acceptable’. No amount of argument, debate or persuasion is going to change that.

    However, society as a whole is prepared to ‘tolerate’ a certain number of deaths on the road, so long as there aren’t too many, or that they don’t come too close to us personally.

    In fact society is prepared to ‘tolerate’ death and disabling injury in all sorts of walks of life, in the home, in our leisure, even at work. It is neither a surprise or shock when we hear that a construction worker has fallen to his death, an off-shore fisherman has drowned at sea, or a farmer has been crushed to death by a tractor. It is almost a given that this will happen to someone in each of these professions. The secret of survival if you are in one of these professions, and choose to stay in it, is to try and make sure it doesn’t happen to you.

    Interestingly, in my experience, this sensitive issue has been best considered in a 2001 HSE publication “Reducing Risks, Protecting People”, affectionately referred to as R2P2. Here they discuss not only the concept (and measurement) of the Tolerability of Risk (in certain sectors of industry), but also the concept of ‘irreducible risks’.

    That’s why learning to manage real risk is so crucially important. It is not something we can be completely protected from, or completely protect others from. Nor is managing risk a state of mind, of a methodical process, or even something which can be adequately documented. its a war, and in every war there are causalities. That’s something else we tolerate.


    • Marcus – I remember David Ball introducing R2P2 to the Play Safety Forum not long after it was written. I agree it was a brave, challenging, coherent treatment of the difficult question of the level of risk ‘society’ is prepared to bear. It is a shame that it appears to have slipped off the radar screen. Maybe adopting it was too risky!

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