What Is Meant When A Rule Is Said To Be Written In Blood?

Industry News By Sarah

A very common saying in health and safety, one that many safety officers have either stated themselves, have heard in a health and safety course or have read in the news is the idea that safety guidelines, rules, regulations and laws are said to be “written in blood”.

It is an exceptionally vivid aphorism, which is part of the reason why it is used so often both within occupational safety and in the wider world when talking about changes to health and safety laws and guidance. 

It is striking, but sometimes misunderstood, and whilst it is such a popular saying, is it necessarily true?

What Does It Mean?

When a rule is said to be “written in blood”, it means that a rule, regulation or law has been drafted and put into force as a reaction to an accident or safety event where people were injured or became ill.

It would be impossible to describe every single health and safety rule brought in as the result of a tragedy, but an example would be an event such as the Victoria Hall disaster, where 183 children were killed in a crowd crush, which led to the development of what would become panic escape bars.

Many health and safety rules and regulations have similar stories behind them, most of which are documented, and are often the explanation for particularly specific rules.

Why Blood?

The vivid imagery of the phrase is vital to capturing the reasons why the field of health and safety exists. There is a perverse incentive for businesses to run as close as possible to the edge of the law; if they do not take risks in the name of efficiency, another business will.

The consequences of increasingly cutting corners and gambling with the health and lives of workers and customers alike become devastatingly clear when a company ultimately loses one of these gambles and people die as a result.

Tragedies such as the nuclear disaster at Chornobyl, the sinking of the Titanic, the Bhopal chemical leak and the Hillsborough disaster were all the result of a push for efficiency and lower costs at the expense of human life.

It also emphasises that this should not be the way that health and safety evolves and lessons are learned; it should not be the norm that people need to die or be seriously injured for a particular safety concern to be taken seriously.

It does not have to be this way, and health and safety has moved from a wholly reactive approach to one that is more proactive.

This is where risk assessments, careful inspections and taking advantage of the huge collective knowledge that has been developed around occupational health and keeping people safe.

The goal of health and safety is to prevent unnecessary accidents and one of the keys to this is to move away from a “move fast and break stuff” approach to safety and instead place it first ahead of all other considerations. There is still a lot of work to be done in this regard.


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