The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Myth Busters Challenge Panel provides a mechanism to independently challenge advice or decisions, made in the name of health and safety, that are believed to be disproportionate or inaccurate.

“We think that communicating these decisions will help all our clients with a better insight into the ongoing ‘perception v’s reality’ arguments which appear in the media from time to time”.
Phil Jones

Issue

The HSE Mythbusting panel decided:

Banned from using antibacterial wipes

An employee was advised that using antibacterial wipes to clean inside vehicles could lead to the development of a ‘superbug’.

Superbugs are a real cause for concern for everyone, but the use of chemical disinfectants in antibacterial wipes is not going to make the situation worse when used correctly. The advice on the use of antibacterial wipes is to use one wipe per surface and then discard to avoid potentially spreading any bacteria to other surfaces. They are effective for the purpose being proposed, and seem like a sensible choice.
Supermarket deli refused to leave plastic wrapping on liver sausage stating that it was a ‘choking hazard’ There is no health and safety reason for refusing to leave the original plastic wrapping on fresh liver sausage. The decision to remove the plastic wrapping from the fresh food at point of sale makes no sense, especially as the product is likely to be wrapped in some other form of plastic bag before being handed to the customer. Claiming removal of the product’s original wrapping was necessary for health and safety reasons is indeed a myth!
Store stopped providing customer with empty ‘tester’ perfume bottles to customer for health and safety reasons

 

Retailers are not prohibited under health and safety at work legislation from providing empty perfume bottles to customers upon request. In this case the store assistant was correctly following company policy on the destruction/recycling of waste. The company should have been more transparent about the real reason for refusal rather than use the excuse of ‘health & safety’.
Children banned from waiting in car at Recycling centre

A recycling centre manager requested that children be removed from their parent’s car and taken outside the centre to wait as they are not allowed on site for health and safety reasons.

There is specific industry guidance which clearly states that “children should stay in the car” at civic amenity sites, so this is a badly misinformed myth.  It is also a dangerous myth, in that the “health and safety” excuse used could have led to a greater risk to the children. Managers at waste and recycling sites should know their industry standards much better than this.
Odd job person in managed block of flats not allowed to change light bulbs for health and safety reasons

Management company advised that odd job person is unable to change light bulbs as they would only be protected from negligence if a competent electrician carried out the job.

Health and safety at work legislation does not require the use of a competent electrician to change light bulbs in a residential property. Confusing a perceived (but in all probability low) risk of being sued for negligence with the requirements of health and safety legislation is unhelpful, and can distort the aim of the legislation, which is to ensure a proportionate approach to managing risks. (offsite)
Employer stopped proving funds for alcoholic drinks at staff Christmas night out (offsite)

Employer stopped proving funds for alcoholic drinks at Christmas night out (offsite), citing health and safety.

While the employer may have a proper concern to discourage staff from overdoing it where it is funding a night out, claiming health and safety legislation as the reason for its refusal to fund Christmas party drinks on a staff night out is incorrect.
Council landlord bans use of mains extension lead on health and safety grounds

Local council bans tenant from using a mains extension lead from within his house, citing health and safety reasons.

Health and safety and safety at work legislation does not prevent tenants from using their own extension lead at home for personal use. This seems to be a case of the landlord leading their tenant astray by inappropriately extending health and safety at work legislation to justify their rules.  Rather than banning extension leads, the landlord could more appropriately refer tenants to available guidance, for example from Electrical Safety First or the Department for Communities and Local Government Fire safety in shared or rented accommodation.
Council bans Refuse collection workers from wearing Christmas hats

Refuse collection workers in Colchester have been banned from wearing Christmas hats or anything Christmassy on the grounds of health and safety. The council have stated drivers and other road users could be distracted.

 There is no health and safety legislation that prevents refuse collectors wearing Santa hats or entering the festive spirit with other modest decorations. Excessive displays which might impede the driver’s vision or cause a distraction are another matter, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Being sensible about health and safety can still allow everyone to have some fun too!
Banned from using antibacterial wipes

An employee was advised that using antibacterial wipes to clean inside vehicles could lead to the development of a ‘superbug’.

Superbugs are a real cause for concern for everyone, but the use of chemical disinfectants in antibacterial wipes is not going to make the situation worse when used correctly. The advice on the use of antibacterial wipes is to use one wipe per surface and then discard to avoid potentially spreading any bacteria to other surfaces. They are effective for the purpose being proposed, and seem like a sensible choice.
No repeat prescription requests by telephone

A GP surgery advised patients that it would no longer take repeat prescription requests over the telephone due to health and safety reasons.

Health and safety regulation does not prevent telephone prescription. GP surgeries have discretion as to whether they offer this service. This surgery has said it does not do so because of a risk that incorrect medication and/or dosages may be prescribed. Their recorded message says this is ‘due to health and safety reasons’ but it would have been more accurate and helpful to have explained this policy in terms of patient safety.
School leaver’s party

School leaver’s party organised by parents in a village hall stated that ‘one parent per  child must attend the party – due to health & safety reasons’.

There is no work activity involved here: it’s simply a party organised by volunteers, so workplace health and safety legislation does not apply.  But, it’s their party and they can set their own ground rules if they want to.
Child not allowed in a soft play area with no socks

A child was not allowed to play in a soft play area with no socks on as not having socks on was against health and safety.

There are no workplace Health and Safety regulations requiring socks to be worn in a soft play area. NHS online advice is to cover up warts or veruccas if taking part in communal activities, to minimise the risk of infections spreading. This company’s wider requirement that all children wear socks might well reflect this public health concern. In this case it would be better to explain the policy and refer to the public health concern rather than to give the impression that there are Health and Safety regulations requiring it. Perhaps the soft play provider could provide socks at a small additional charge for those children who turn up without them to avoid disappointment.
Babies dummy cafe ban

A mum had to leave a café as the manager banned the use of dummies for young children and babies for health and safety reasons.

Health and safety at work legislation does not stop babies using dummies in cafes. This appears to be the café’s company policy which according to the press article they relate to strict food hygiene guidelines.The cafe should clearly explain the reason behind their policy rather than dumbing down the issue and blaming health and safety.
Tumble turns banned from Council run swimming pool for health and safety reasons

Freestyle lane tumble turns banned from Council run swimming pool for health and safety reasons

Whilst there can be risks to the swimmer and others from tumble turns, incidents are not common. The decision as to whether or not to allow the practice should be based on a number of factors including pool depth and configuration; number, abilities and demographic of swimmers involved; and other pool activities and supervision issues. In this instance it appears the operator has considered these factors, though it may have been helpful if they had explained more fully the rationale for banning their use during the public sessions in question.
Family told by undertaker that shoes are not allowed on deceased’s body for funeral

Family arranging a funeral told by undertaker that the deceased would not be allowed to wear shoes as it was against health and safety regulations.

 Health and safety at work legislation does not stop undertakers enclosing shoes in coffins. Depending upon whether the deceased is to be buried or cremated after the funeral, there may be other reasons for not allowing shoes but this should have been explained properly to the enquirer. It is certainly not a health and safety matter.
Library will not let users plug their laptops into power sockets for health and safety reasons

A Council run library will not let users plug their laptops into electrical outlets because of a risk of tripping or in case of faulty laptop charger plugs.

The council and library seem to have got their wires well and truly crossed in this case as both the potential problems appear to have been well under control.  Restricting the charging of the laptop can’t be justified on health and safety grounds in these circumstances.
Supermarket cafe refused to sell customer a packet of untoasted fruit bread

Supermarket cafe refused to sell customer a packet of fruit bread for health and safety reasons as he didn’t want it toasted before taking it home.

There is nothing in health and safety at work legislation that prevents the sale of fruit bread nor should there have been a food labelling issue here. It is a pity that a “health and safety” excuse was used to refuse such a simple request. This appears to be a case of poor staff training resulting in a very disappointed customer.
Supermarket banned foldaway bicycle from store for health and safety reasons

A supermarket banned a customer from taking his foldaway bicycle into store for health and safety reasons.

This is clearly a myth as health and safety at work law does not prohibit taking folding up bicycles into retail premises. It’s refreshing to see those who used ‘elf and safety’ as an excuse to tell their customer ‘on your bike’ back-pedalling, holding their hands up and admitting this was clearly inappropriate.
A Council run library will not let users plug their laptops into electrical outlets because of a risk of tripping or in case of faulty laptop charger plugs The council and library seem to have got their wires well and truly crossed in this case as both the potential problems appear to have been well under control.  Restricting the charging of the laptop can’t be justified on health and safety grounds in these circumstances.
Family told by undertaker that shoes are not allowed on deceased’s body for funeral

Family arranging a funeral told by undertaker that the deceased would not be allowed to wear shoes as it was against health and safety regulations.

Health and safety at work legislation does not stop undertakers enclosing shoes in coffins. Depending upon whether the deceased is to be buried or cremated after the funeral, there may be other reasons for not allowing shoes but this should have been explained properly to the enquirer. It is certainly not a health and safety matter.
A gym reduced it’s 24/7 opening hours, closing overnight for health and safety reasons Whilst there may be some additional health and safety considerations in operating the gym 24/7, they are all easily manageable as thousands of businesses demonstrate in providing round the clock opening. This facility chose to trump all of the other reasons behind their decision to curtail their opening hours with the health and safety card when they should have had the courage to reveal their full hand.
Nightclub refused to serve salt and lemon with Tequila shots

Bar manager refused to serve salt and lemon with Tequila shots to customers in a nightclub due to health and safety.

There is no workplace health and safety legislation that prohibits the service of salt and lemon with tequila. This looks like a case of quoting an easy excuse – possibly to cover up poor customer service. The bar should simply serve the drink in the traditional way as requested, and not misuse health and safety legislation in this way.
Bus company separates boys and girls on contracted school service to comply with health and safety regulations

A bus company providing contracted service to a school stated that they separated boys and girls on their school bus in order to comply with health and safety regulations.

There is certainly no specific health and safety at work legislation that requires boys and girls to be separated on school buses. But bus operators do need to find practical ways to control rowdy behaviour. This is primarily an issue of good discipline, and pupils moving about a bus or misbehaving can create real dangers for themselves, others on the bus and other road users if the driver is distracted.
Council bans Refuse collection workers from wearing Christmas hats

Refuse collection workers in Colchester have been banned from wearing Christmas hats or anything Christmassy on the grounds of health and safety. The council have stated drivers and other road users could be distracted.

There is no health and safety legislation that prevents refuse collectors wearing Santa hats or entering the festive spirit with other modest decorations. Excessive displays which might impede the driver’s vision or cause a distraction are another matter, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Being sensible about health and safety can still allow everyone to have some fun too
Gym manager queried customer’s complaint on gym users topping up personal water bottles from cooler

A customer made a complaint about other gym users filling up personal water bottles from a water cooler instead of using the disposable cone cups provided. The customer stated that this was against health and safety regulations as germs could be spread this way.

 Well done to the gym manager for raising this and bringing it to our attention. It is important for gym users to keep hydrated and there are no health and safety reasons why they cannot do so using their own bottles rather than the paper cups provided. Other establishments which do ban gym users from using their own bottles are likely to have other motives for doing so – but it is not a health and safety issue.
Supermarket café told customers they are unable to heat up mince pies for health and safety reasons

A Supermarket café told a customer that they are unable to heat up the mince pies they serve for health and safety reasons.

 A clear case of “bah humbug” here. There are no health and safety rules which would prevent the counter staff responding to a perfectly reasonable request to heat up a mince pie. The store management have confirmed there is no central policy on this either so we hope the serving staff can get into the Christmas spirit soon.
Disabled children banned from playing with toilet roll centres due to health and safety

A trainer specialising in delivery of training for disabled children was told that they can no longer give children toilet roll centres to play with because of health and safety.

This myth runs and runs. School science organisations such as CLEAPSS, the Scottish Schools Education Research Centre along with the Association for Science Education are clear that as long as toilet roll centres and egg boxes look clean, there is no reason why they should not be used. Everyday living presents a similar microbiological risk. Perhaps more energy should be put into making sure children (and adults!) wash their hands properly after using the toilet.
Odd job person in managed block of flats not allowed to change light bulbs for health and safety reasons

Management company advised that odd job person is unable to change light bulbs as they would only be protected from negligence if a competent electrician carried out the job.

 

Health and safety at work legislation does not require the use of a competent electrician to change light bulbs in a residential property. Confusing a perceived (but in all probability low) risk of being sued for negligence with the requirements of health and safety legislation is unhelpful, and can distort the aim of the legislation, which is to ensure a proportionate approach to managing risks.
A pub would not use all the candles supplied on a birthday cake for ‘health and safety’ reasons

A pub was provided with a birthday cake to bring out for a customer with candles that spelt ‘happy birthday’, but were told that they could not have all the candles on it for health and safety reasons.

What a party pooper! There are no health and safety reasons why the correct number of candles cannot be put on a birthday cake. Perhaps the cake wasn’t big enough or they didn’t have enough candles but using the old ‘elf n safety’ excuse has probably ensured no further happy returns to this particular establishment.
Dog not allowed in hire car for ‘health and safety’ reasons

A dog was not allowed in to a hire car for ‘health and safety reasons’. The owner was also told that the garage concerned does not like dog hairs in courtesy/hire vehicles.

Health and safety at work legislation does not prohibit the carriage of pet dogs in vehicles used for domestic use. The company has taken a decision to exclude carriage of dogs in courtesy/hire cars for cleanliness reasons. The company should be transparent about the real reason for inclusion of the clause in their contracts rather than use the catch all excuse of ‘health and safety’.
HR Manager for an office based company refuses to buy weights for a gym.

A HR Manager for an office based company refuses to buy weights for a gym with the excuse that it is health and safety that is preventing her from buying them.

Health and safety at work legislation does not prohibit the provision or use of weights in a workplace gym. The company may have other reasons not to provide them but they should explain the real reason to employees, rather than use ‘health and safety’ as an excuse. Management should clarify the position and find a solution. It is particularly sad that provision of facilities which should improve the health and well-being of staff is being marred on “elf n safety” grounds.
Customer asked to leave DIY store after refusal to remove toddler from store trolley.

Customer asked to leave DIY store after refusal to remove toddler from coin operated store trolley with no child seat.

 The panel believe that the DIY store has taken a responsible approach to the issue and provides sensible advice and support to their customers. The company’s products are typically heavy construction materials and the risk to children riding in trolleys in this environment is a real one. The store is working with others to find trolleys which are designed to carry children as well as their merchandise but in the meantime their offer of assistance to parents with children is a sensible and considerate alternative.
Buses cannot stop at certain bus stops because of health and safety

A bus company claimed their bus could not stop at certain stops along a diversion route because of health and safety issues.

 This is a clear case of health and safety being used as an excuse when the reasoning has absolutely nothing to do with health and safety.  The bus company recognised this and will encourage their staff to give proper explanations in future, not just the catch-all ‘health and safety.
Golf club won’t put Committee meeting minutes on to a notice board due to health and safety

A golf club has stopped putting Committee meeting minutes on to the notice board for health and safety reasons

 There are no conceivable health and safety reasons for not displaying documents such as minutes of a meeting on a notice board. It is totally mystifying that someone should suggest this.
Job Advert stated that Bus Drivers weight must be below 18 stone

The enquirer was recently looking at jobs and a bus company said that due to new Health and Safety rules all new bus driver recruits must be below 18 stone in weight.

 There are no rules in health and safety legislation or in vehicle standards regulations which place weight limits on people driving buses. If such a “rule” exists it is a company policy and they should clearly explain their reasons for it not leave potential applicants to infer that it’s a “safety rule” imposed by others.
A local pub can’t replace fried egg with scrambled as they can’t use a microwave due to health and safety

On ordering a cooked breakfast in their local pub, the enquirer was told they couldn’t replace fried egg with scrambled egg as this would involve using a microwave which can’t be done due to Health and safety.

This is a cracking excuse! Health & safety at work legislation does not prohibit the use of a microwave oven to make scrambled eggs. The company concerned acknowledges that it does not serve scrambled eggs because it has a centrally-determined menu. Instead of explaining this, “health and safety” has been given as the excuse, irritating the customer and leaving the company with egg on its face.
A lady fainted in a shop and the staff could not give her a glass of water because of health and safety

Whilst in a shop recently a lady fainted and the enquirer immediately went to assist. The enquirer heard the lady ask the very kind staff in the shop who had given her a comfy chair to sit in, for a drink of water. She was told sorry we can’t give you one – health and safety rules. The enquirer was wondering if this is a true ruling by H&S.

Refusing the lady who had fainted a drink of water after she came round and was sitting up was a bizarre and ridiculous response.The panel is at a loss to understand why anyone could possibly think they could not do this for “health and safety”. There is no such rule and it would have been quick and easy to accommodate the request.
A charity shop refused donation of baby bath due to health and safety

A local charity shop refused the enquirers donation of a plastic baby bath because ‘health and safety’ meant that the new purchaser could sue if their baby were injured after slipping in it.

There are no health and safety rules which would restrict charity shops from accepting items like baby baths for resale. It’s also hard to imagine circumstances in which their fear of litigation might manifest itself. They are of course at liberty to set their own policies on what goods they will or will not accept but they can’t wash their hands like this and simply point to non-existent “health and safety” rules.
Consultants and Letting Agents misinterpreting the risks of exposure to legionella of their tenants

Consultants and letting agents are i) using the revised L8 ACOP to infer there is new legislation regarding landlords responsibilities and ii) misrepresenting what the law requires of landlords of domestic rented properties in relation to assessing and controlling the risks of exposure to Legionella bacteria of their tenants, for financial gain.

Health and Safety law does not require landlords to produce a ‘Legionnaires testing certificate’. Legionella testing is required only in exceptional circumstances and generally not in domestic hot and cold water systems. Such letting agents and consultants are scaremongering landlords, for financial gain, by misinterpreting and exaggerating the legal requirements to manage and control legionella in domestic premises.
Unable to open office windows
IssueEnquirer’s office has been told that they cannot have the keys to open the windows in their office on the 3rd floor as this would breach health and safety. The windows run almost floor to ceiling with the top section opening inwards. Standing next to the window, the open section is just below the enquirer’s chest height (they are 6ft tall). With summer coming the office is getting hotter and they are unable to have any fresh air in the building.
In some circumstances it may be appropriate to prohibit people from opening windows if there is a real risk of someone falling out; but where this is a concern, the problem can also be addressed by fitting controls to limit the extent to which the windows can be opened. In this particular case it seems more likely that “health and safety” has been used as a cover when the real reason is to do with concerns over the effectiveness of the air conditioning.
“Health and safety” should not be used simply to avoid having a discussion about the real concerns and what solutions might be possible.
Nappies not to be disposed of in sanitary bins

At a local party venue the enquirer saw a poster in the ladies toilet stating “Due to Health and Safety Law please do not put nappies in the sanitary bins. Please use the nappy bins provided”.

This is not a health and safety issue at all. The notice should simply ask people to use the correct bins provided and possibly explain that this is because nappies take up too much capacity in the restricted sanitary bins. There is no reason at all to call on good old “elf n safety” to strengthen their case.
All tools on building sites need to be a maximum of 110V

The enquirer was tasked with carrying out sound insulation tests in houses on a construction site. The site manager asked him if his equipment was battery operated to which his reply was “no, it will need to be plugged into a 230V socket”. He asked if there was 230V power in the plots and the site manager said yes it was available but all “tools” on site need to run off a maximum of 110V as this was the company policy.

The enquirer appears to have been planning to work in a completed (or nearly) completed house with the electrical system installed and compliant with requirements for electrical installations. This is a significantly lower risk from when the house is under construction. Whilst health and safety law does not ban 230v tools on construction sites, HSE strongly advises that 110v tools are preferable given the wet, dirty and dusty nature of construction sites and the possibility of mechanical damage to cables and tools.In this instance a standard which is reasonable for a live, temporary, construction site is being applied to a different (domestic) environment where the risks would be much lower and the electrical system permanent and compliant with the latest standards. If a site or company decide to impose a higher (disproportionate) standard in this lower risk environment they can but it is not health and safety law that requires this.
Engineer not allowed to climb a stepladder to replace a meter.

A newspaper article stated that a man was left dumbfounded when an electricity engineer refused to replace his meter – because he was not allowed to climb a stepladder.

There is no legal requirement for anyone to undertake a formal training course in order to become competent to use a stepladder.  A stepladder is often the sensible and practical option for carrying out low risk tasks that involve working at height for a short time.The facts of this case are not quite as reported in the press. The engineer considered the job was awkward for one person to carry out safely on his own from a stepladder due to the position of the meter close to a flight of stairs and decided that the job required a second person to assist in the removal and replacement with a new meter. The panel support this as a reasonable decision to have made.Falls from height are one of the biggest causes of workplace fatalities and major injuries and falls from ladders are one of the most common causes.The panel support the decision which the engineer took to call for assistance to do the job as a reasonable one to have made. The real reasons were misrepresented in incorrectly publicising this as issue of red tape around ladder training.
Supermarket staff not allowed to water dying plants

Following a visit to a local supermarket store the enquirer complained about the state of plants that were on sale. They had dried out and were dying, due to lack of water. The staff told them that they had been instructed not to water the plants due to health and safety.

 There is no workplace Health and Safety legislation that prevents flowers from being watered and the policy makes no sense at all given that hundreds of supermarkets, garden centres and florists across the country manage to keep their flowers fresh without causing risk of injury to anyone. With a little thought and common sense, this supermarket branch could do the same. Alternatively they should stop selling flowers and avoid the waste – no-one wants to buy flowers/plants which are already dying.
Temporary traffic signals used for health and safety reasons.

A burst water main has rendered a local road unusable on one side. This has led to a lengthy use of temporary traffic signals so that vehicles can pass the obstruction on the side of the road not affected. Enquirer asked the local authority how long this is going to last. The response was that the road is closed for “health and safety reasons”. Enquirer thought it more likely that the road is closed for Road Traffic Act reasons and an ongoing insurance dispute.

The complainant’s original query was not about the traffic lights nor the partial road closure but rather the reason for their protracted use. The delay is not a health and safety matter. The local authority should be encouraged to explain the reasons for installing temporary traffic signals and for their extended use more clearly. The lights are there as a straightforward road safety measure to deal with the effects of a carriageway closure. The issue of whether the repairs to the road have been delayed unnecessarily is not a matter within HSE’s jurisdiction.