Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Health and safety intolerance

The modern (and predominantly British) phenomenon of the health and safety culture is a target rich environment for anyone with an interest in or propensity towards intolerance. The thousands of pointless rules, regulations, signs, items of apparel, announcements, pieces of equipment, restrictive practices, and so on and so forth that have permeated our everyday lives in the name of health and safety in the past ten years or so have reduced modern society to the collective equivalent of a deranged, gibbering, strait jacketed loon.

Health and safety has infiltrated everything that we do. You can't even sneeze in an unregulated manner – the government has spent millions of pounds on advertising campaigns which tell us how to sneeze properly. And as the rules have become ever more omnipresent and bizarre, so have those who enforce them. Tufty and Green Cross man have long since been put out to grass. Stripped of discretion and common sense, the Health and Safety brigade have become hi-viz vest wearing, tannoy operating, walkie talkie carrying automatons, themselves in turn intent on stripping society of any self accountability. Reminding a bunch of be-suited Telegraph clutching commuters at 7.30 in the morning at Tunbridge Wells station that it is illegal and dangerous to use skateboards, bicycles or rollerblades on the station is unnecessary and patronising. What about other dangerous activities? They do not warn us that it is illegal and dangerous to bait bears, tame lions, swallow swords, eat fire, breed fighting dogs, chase the dragon, paraglide or free run – so why pick on cyclists, skateboarders and rollerbladers?

Not being heavily involved in construction or catering, both of which have been strangled almost to death by health and safety regulation in recent years, the areas in which I am most affected by all this nonsense are public transport (but I've bored you to death on this recently, so will save this for another time as it is a topic all in itself) and any sort of public event – particularly sport and music. Why can one not drink within sight of a football pitch, whilst being permitted (nay encouraged) to drink one's age in pints at cricket or rugby matches, and indeed anywhere out of sight of the pitch at football stadia? Why do security personnel require you to remove the top from any plastic drinks bottles when entering a public arena, but don't then conduct a full body search to make sure that you are not smuggling in any spares (which I always do)? Why is a capped bottle of Evian a more potentially potent weapon than a golf umbrella (which can be taken in)? And why am I not allowed to take my motorcycle helmet inside the stadium at football matches? In case I go on a frenzied headbutting spree after first temporarily blinding my victims by splashing mineral water in their faces?

One of the most bizarre incidents that I have suffered in my adult life came about when I took my teenage daughter to a music festival at Earl's Court. My daughter had just discovered a genre of music commonly known as "emo" which is characterised by a mixture of full-volume thrash guitar and even-fuller-volume screaming, which even I with my liberal musical tastes could not tolerate for more than about five seconds. As my daughter was too young to go unaccompanied (and not, at the time, realising the consequences of my misguided largesse) I bought a ticket for myself too, thinking that once we had secured entry I could then disappear to the pub/shops/park and do my own thing until I was recalled to the venue either to pick up the pieces of my daughter's lifeless, trampled body or – more likely – to give her a lift back home to Tunbridge Wells.

Being a lawyer, I have never been one to read small print (though will generally charge for not having done so when acting on someone else's behalf) so when I went to leave the pitch black, cacophonous cavern of Earl's Court for a spot of lunch in the sun in a nearby pub garden I was a little taken aback to be informed by a man in a high viz vest (and one of those clear plastic coiled earpieces) that there was no readmission. So I was there for the duration. Another six hours.

As the enormity of my situation slowly dawned on me, I sat down on a step in the otherwise deserted foyer to assess my options. At this point, hi-viz man approached me again. I looked up expectantly at him, thinking that – being of similar age, maybe with teenage daughters of his own and therefore sympathetic with my plight – he would turn a blind eye to the "no readmission" policy, we would have a bit of banter about how awful the music was and I would disappear for my liquid lunch. Not a bit of it.

"You can't sit there mate – it's a fire escape route". I looked round incredulously. I have always prided myself on my snake like hips and the step on which I was sitting must have been 15 feet wide, as well as being part of one of four similar sized staircases leading off the foyer (which was empty apart from hi-viz man and me). "You can't be serious" I protested. His facial expression confirmed that he was indeed serious. Very serious, in fact. Defeated (though to be fair I didn't exactly put up much of a fight) I dragged my sorry ass back into the bear pit of sweaty moshing teenagers and set about trying to find whatever refuge I could find from the dreadful din that was assaulting my senses.

That refuge eventually came in the shape of a loading bay at the back of the building which was designated as a smoking area. It was not exactly an English country garden, but it was out of range of the "music", so I found myself a perch on a wall and sat down to soak up the warmth of the early summer sun for a few hours.

Suddenly I was cast into shadow by a hi-viz vest clad form.

"You can't sit there mate – you're not smoking"
"You can't sit there mate – you're not smoking. This area is for smokers only"
"But I don't smoke. It's bad for you"
"In which case you can't sit there"
"Are you serious?"
"Yes – you can only come out here if you want to smoke. And once you've finished you've got to go back in again."

No amount of reason, logic, appeal to better nature (if any) was going to work here. It was death by a thousand screamos or death by smoking related illnesses. Even Mr Hobson would have had difficulty choosing between the two. No amount of thought and analysis could enable me to come up with any logic behind this bizarre – surreal, even – situation in which I found myself. Was he just bored and looking to pick a fight – a sort of hi-viz of equivalent of "are you looking at my bird"? Or were these actual rules and he was just in the unfortunate position of having to enforce them. With no flexibility or common sense applied – "befehl ist befehl" as they used to say in Nuremberg.......

But that is the point, isn't it? No latitude, no ability to let logic or common sense prevail. The nanny state. I once ordered 6 drinks at a complimentary bar in the hospitality area at Wembley stadium, only to be told that there was a maximum order of four drinks. But there are six of us - look there are my five friends just there. You can only order four at a time. Why? Because we can't serve you on any other basis. Why though - I am the only person at the bar (true) so it's not to avoid congestion, I am clearly not drunk, so it can't be down to public order concerns and there is no limit on individual consumption? Sorry – that's what we've been told. Health and Safety. So I ordered four drinks, handed them to my guests and then went back and ordered another two. Crazy.

Impose stupid, needless, patronising rules and people will try to find ways of getting round them. Just for the hell of it. It is antagonistic. Treat us all like adults, credit us with some common sense. Trust us to look left, look right and look left again and to use the Green Cross Code. Trust us not to go rollerblading on the station. Trust us to move from the step if the building has to be evacuated. Lay down your hi-viz vests and walkie talkies. Becoming free thinking, accountable citizens. Liberate yourselves.

Anyway – got to stop there. Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992, regulation 4. Got to take a keyboard break.....


  1. How to fix "Health and Safety"
    - John Delius is a retired university lecturer.

    In my opinion it's not really about H+S per se, but about balance and common sense. We have lost these.
    If there was no H+S unscrupulous employers would exploit people and many more would be injured and killed. It troubled 'moral' Victorians little that children worked down pits and up chimneys until enough people spoke up for the enactment of laws that forbade it and for the implementation of safety laws.
    If we had balance and employed common sense we would accept the virtue of H+S laws but because we do not they become too intrusive and often frankly ridiculous, usually due to fear of litigation by members of the legal profession looking to make money who care not for the consequences.
    Friends of mine honeymooned in Sarawak in Borneo a few years ago and told me the papers over there are full of stories of the dumb Brits that used to rule over them and their idiot laws and behaviour. They're laughing at us all over the world. Nice.

    Dave Hallowes

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  3. PS: I confess that I had only read the first paragraph when I decided to post my first and subsequent comments. Strange that you should include the words '"befehl ist befehl" as they used to say in Nuremberg' (translation please) and that I should come up with the films Intolerance, The Birth Of A Nation and Triumph Of The Will.

    We have bred a nation of selfish, navel-gazing trolls. Liberate themselves? Many regard the nanny State as liberation, but then to be fair it is a response to the omnipresent gratuitous avarice and 'violence' inflicted upon people by a perennial section of humanity whose hearts are not open and thus live their entire lives in a permanent state of greed and wilful disregard of others' needs and feelings, ignorant of the fact that the money and 'stuff' they constantly crave has no chance whatsoever of satiating their inner poverty and hunger.

    We have so much and yet we are a nation living in no small measure in spiritual penury. Back in 1993 I spent a couple of months in Calcutta recovering from amoebic dysentery and bronchitis and I would often see this little kid of no more than ten about the street, always in the same filthy clothes. The thing is you see that he had every reason by our standards to feel bad about his lot in life, yet whilst no doubt life was hard in some ways for him I remember him as being one of the most genuinely happy kids I have ever seen. It was tangible. Compare that with so many youngsters here. Take away their Nintendo and they think the sky has fallen in.

    I digress. You should make Billy Bragg a friend on Facebook and sign up for the regular email or get the RSS feeds from The New Statesman Iain. The ignorance, hatred and vitriol often expressed is the same but in reverse as some of that I imagine is expressed towards the correspondents in the right-wing press. Many people in Britain really do want a big State, the collective and so on and so forth.

    Whilst I regard myself as left-of-centre I have certainly moved somewhat. In principal socialist ideals are profoundly Christian (and thus also Islamic, Buddhist, etc) in essence. The greater good... It is the practical application that is the problem.

    Many people do not seek the liberation you speak of for to be liberated is also to face reality and sometimes that is accompanied by harsh and unpalatable truths. This is so whether one is from the left, the right or the centre.

    "I offer you freedom, I offer you life" said the prophet. But many people were frightened and replied "No, we don't want freedom, we don't want this life you speak of, give us death". I have qualms about the core values of the Conservatives but agree with the aim behind the Big Society drivel, which is to try to eradicate the dread scourge of dependence and the heavy hand of the State from peoples' lives. If only they would act in everyone's interests and not pander to those that buy their support.

    Anyway, if it is to succeed then this freedom and responsibility will have to be imposed on people and it will not be popular. Bring it on, but so too fairness and accountability amongst the ravening wolves who have so damaged our country. Without it there could be trouble and frankly that would be understandable, if not righteous.