Health and safety law becomes the new excuse for poor customer service


After recently hearing that the Health and Safety Executive have a Myth Busters Challenge Panel I thought I’d do some further research into this to see what it  was all about. So to help me do that I requested some general data from them but I certainly didn’t expect to see what I found. The data shows overwhelmingly that Health and Safety law is being used as an excuse by organisations to get away with poor customer service and communication.

A staggering 64% of cases reviewed over an 18 month period by the Mythbusters Challenge Panel were deemed to be either the result of poor customer service or poor communication with customers and not related to Health and Safety Law. This was the very reason the Challenge Panel was established as their website states ‘”Health and Safety” is often incorrectly used as a convenient excuse to stop what are essentially sensible activities going ahead’.HSE logo

One such case, reported by The Independent in June this year arose as a result of staff at a branch of Waitrose refusing to fillet a fish for a customer on the grounds that it was ‘too slippery’, despite the fact that this service was offered on their website.

As ridiculous as this one incident sounds, the data suggests a more alarming trend.In total, over the period of January 2012 to June 2013, a total of 184 cases were reviewed by the panel.

45% were attributed to poor customer service

20% were an ‘overinterpretation’ of the law

19% were poor communication on behalf of the company

9% related to other regulators e.g. Food Standards Agency

It was only a mere 7% of cases that were actually a sensible decision related to Health and Safety on behalf of the company concerned.

On a visit to the Mythbusters website where reviewed cases are listed, it doesn’t take long to spot other ‘crimes against the customer’. Case 172 cites an incident on a train resulting in the buffet car service being stopped due to “health and safety” whereas in reality, it was actually due to staff shortage.

Being a parent and frequenter of soft play areas, case 157 also caught my eye. A children’s soft play centre has signs up “customers must not consume their own food or drink on the premises due to Health & Safety reasons”.  However customers are allowed to consume hot drinks and cooked meals on the premises as long as they are purchased from their cafe. The panel’s decision reads ‘There are no health and safety laws which would stand in the way of customers consuming their own food in circumstances as described. The panel all believe that this is a clear case of commercial motives being conveniently hidden behind the catch-all health and safety excuse.’not allowed food sign

Whilst everyone accepts that commercial organisations are in business to make money, clearly some act in a very short sighted way towards customers and customer service, which, in beautiful irony actually systematically undermines and then ultimately destroys the business growth and profits organisations are trying to achieve. In addition to crediting customers with a complete lack of intelligence. However, this lost revenue opportunity is easily quantifiable.

In an article published by the Retail Gazette in 2012 based on research conducted by SMG, they estimated that UK Retailers are losing out on an estimated £45.38 billion a year by not giving their customers the best possible experience. Staff training and a real lack of understanding of what customers actually want from and expect from an experience with companies contributes to this situation, as does a very woolly understanding or over interpretation of Health and Safety law. However this situation is created, the customer shouldn’t be made to bear the brunt of this and the impact of this is financially significant for the UK economy at the very worst possible time.Poor rating scale

However this is completely avoidable and it doesn’t need to be like this. Indeed there are many companies both large and small delivering great customer service and delighting customers on a daily basis. More often than not though, it’s the attention to detail with customers, a smile and the timeless and consistent delivery of the basics which is where companies succeed or fail. A quote from Richard Branson sums this succinctly; ‘customer service is about communication and attention to detail, neither of which are difficult so naturally they’re the first things we forget!’

Customers simply want to be treated like individuals and made to feel valued not fobbed off with excuses about Health and Safety or other attempts to devolve the responsibility of delivering good


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