Substituting Health and Safety For Common sense
For some foreign students and expats it may have been a shock to what extent British society is the grip of health and safety regulation. For me as a thick-headed Dutchman it certainly was. The correspondent for Volkskrant, one of the main Dutch newspapers, went as far as to say the “English obsession with safety leads to a wimpish society”1. He has a couple of examples of that shock the average foreigner, the funniest being costumers of ASDA that were stuck for 75 minutes in an elevator because the personnel was not trained to push the alarm button. The other end of stick is what the comedian Steve Hughes that attests how canals in Amsterdam are not fenced with the motto: “Is your bike wet? You’re on the wrong bit mate!” My point in this short essay is not to emphasize the obvious superiority of the Dutch (sorry!), but merely go into what it means economically to have an extensive Health and Safety regime.
Let us suppose that health and safety is just a well-liked British hobby, after all every country has its cultural fads. The problem is that this comes at a significant economic loss for the economy and therefore society as a whole. This cost can be broken up into two parts of wasteful economics activity: unproductive investment and rent-seeking.
A good case of unproductive investment would be if the Amsterdam administration would try to build fences around all the canals. We generally assume that most people are not too stupid to fall into a canal and subsequently drown. In Britain you could think of making all
steps safe, but also buying a helmet for your three-year-old toddler who rides a tricycle.
Maybe investing in a helmet is not very substantial but particularly in local and national government where is more money to waste, this investment constitutes a significant economic burden. If you don’t trust me, look around where you are sitting, think of the building and the street you are in. How many objects and technologies have been amended so that not even a chimpanzee could get itself killed (regardless of the fact that chimpanzees are actually very intelligent animals, even more intelligent than some humans!). The problem is even more poignant for firms that compete for a market. If a German firm does not need to stick to senseless regulation and therefore has too spend less, its cost will be lower and it is better able to compete correspondingly. British industry loses competitiveness because of health and safety and governments are wasting tax payers money. Money that could be well-spent in other areas.
The second part is rent-seeking, to understand one needs a quick refreshing of economics. Economics is a pie, if you contribute your time to making something or delivering a service, you make the pie bigger. However some occupations do not necessarily contribute by creating added value, they just take a slice of the pie. The question to ask yourself is: “Could we do without this service or institution?”. One institutions that is completely superfluous economically is the judiciary system, it only exists by the virtue of our unlawful behaviour. If we would be honest and considerate there is no need for a judiciary system. This becomes a problem with the cultural fad we have been discussing. Where safety is regarded as an enforceable right an expansion of the sector that provides the enforcing is inevitable. As lawyers and judges are generally costly this raises the cost of firms, individuals and governments alike.
In summary the current health and safety regime in British society is economically costly and exists for no clear reason. Health and safety is in some way substituted for common sense, as the consequences for mistakes due to a lack of common sense can be recovered from another party. Which demotes health and safety from a noble pursuit to an expensive hobby.
Jurriaan Kalf is a recent graduate of economics and comes from Amersfoort in the Netherlands