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Royal Mail

Royal Mail, the UK postal service, has made the wearing of cycle helmets compulsory for its 37,000 cycling delivery workers - the largest cycling fleet in Europe.

The move is not popular with many postal workers, who complain that they have not been given a balanced appraisal of the pros and cons of cycle helmets.

This case study examines the evidence behind this decision, and whether it is likely to improve the safety of Royal Mail employees.

Background

Following the deaths of five cycling postal workers in 3 years, the Communications Workers Union (CWU) called for mandatory cycle helmet use at its 2001 annual conference. Royal Mail commissioned the Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) to look at the benefits that might be obtained if its staff wore helmets. TRL concluded that the routine wearing of helmets by postal staff could reduce head injuries in low impact collisions.

In 2002 Royal Mail and the CWU reached agreement on a Code of Practice for the mandatory use of cycle helmets and high visibility garments. Helmets will be compulsory from October 2003.

Each year around 2,000 postal cyclists are injured, mostly as a result of slips and falls. Only a quarter of the injuries are sufficiently serious to require the workers to take time off work. Just 1% of casualties suffer head injury and Royal Mail acknowledges that wearing a helmet will not necessarily prevent injury or death.

Explaining the decision for compulsion, a Royal Mail spokesman said: "We are not giving our staff a choice about whether or not to wear helmets because we believe this move will enhance safety. As a responsible employer we must make sure that helmets are used and, just as we insist on high visibility clothing and other safety measures, it is our responsibility to ensure they are worn".

A Health & Safety perspective

The UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) does not require employees to wear cycle helmets.

Cycle helmets used on the public highway are specifically excluded from the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) at work regulations.

Although employers have general duties under section 2 of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 (HSWA) to ensure the health and safety of employees while cycling at work, where more specific laws, such as the Road Traffic Acts, provide the national safety rules for a particular situation (e.g. cycling on the roads), HSE considers that compliance with that law is, in general, sufficient to ensure compliance with the relevant requirements of the HWSA.

Since there is no requirement on cyclists generally to wear cycle helmets when on the road, HSE does not advise that employers insist that helmets be used under health and safety law.

This means that it would be very hard for an employer to force an employee to wear a cycle helmet on health and safety grounds. They are, however, free to require employees to wear cycle helmets as part of their uniform. HSE has no remit to dictate the uniform policy of a company unless it falls within the scope of PPE.

Ultimately the wearing of cycle helmets is a matter of individual choice, and any stance to the contrary could potentially be challenged on Human Rights grounds.

Above derived from communications with the Health and Safety Executive

The evidence for compulsion

The following arguments have been put forward by Royal Mail and The Communications Workers Union to justify the mandatory use of cycle helmets.

Other important considerations

The following issues do not seem to have been considered by Royal Mail or the CWU:

Summary

Royal Mail and the CWU seem to have considered only some of the evidence relating to the effectiveness of cycle helmets, and in so doing have not been able to give to postal workers a balanced view of the merits and drawbacks of cycle helmets.

Not taken into account are:

Royal Mail is conducting an experiment with its cycling workers, and one in which the workers have no choice but to participate. Some fear for their livelihoods if they don't. There has been no preliminary trial to evaluate the effect of helmet wearing on casualty rates amongst delivery workers.

Royal Mail acknowledges that safety experts differ about the safety merits of helmets, and that some experts believe their use to be counterproductive. The evidence is favour of mandatory helmet use is far from convincing. This calls for a cautious approach from a responsible employer.

There is no requirement to wear helmets under Health and Safety legislation. Mandatory helmet use cannot therefore be required on health and safety grounds, and is open to challenge on grounds of infringement of Human Rights.

Whilst Royal Mail and the union are hopeful of achieving a safety benefit, the wider evidence suggests that at best it may have little effect on the safety of postmen and postwomen, whilst at worst it could result in increased risk of injury, with workers restricted in what they may do to protect themselves. It is not clear what impartial monitoring is in place to evaluate the outcomes.