Thursday, 4 March 2010

'Health and safety gone mad?' No, just a fatal lack of faith

This morning I was quite irritatingly refused entry to a First bus in Sheffield on account of my carrying a medium black Americano from Caffè Ritazza. Despite the cup having a cover that was almost préservatif in its covering, I was not allowed to enter the vehicle. The driver, very apologetic, threw his hands into the air pleading ’sorry, it’s health and safety!’ while directing my eyes to a helpful no-food-and-drink logo.

It was a minor inconvenience and looking back I should have known better, so I will refrain from using such cliches as ‘hell in a handcart’ and ‘nanny state’ (though this didn’t stop my friends from teasing me with them on Facebook) – I still managed to get to college on time, after all.

But what stuck with me after as I sat back down in the bus shelter to a little more Vampire Weekend (which incidentally is very relaxing) was the resigned sense of powerlessness I observed from the bus driver. That look of frustration as he had to bypass his own common sense for the sake of this increasingly sentient monolith of instruction.

Health and safety, innit? It’s telling, in my view, that the term in itself is often enough to explain why these events occur. It’s almost personified. ‘It’s health and safety.’ Read that back – it doesn’t even make sense. Who is this health and safety?

Now, at this point I would accept your scorn – going off on one about a slightly delayed bus journey is just silly. It would say more about myself and my frame of mind than what I’m attempting to write about if that was, indeed what I was writing about.

But that is not what I’m writing about. In fact the ‘cult of health safety’ is not what I’m writing about either. What I am, in fact, writing about about is this peculiar distrust of common sense that seems to have crept up in the last decade or so. About that fundamental lack of faith in people and their abilities which James Purnell recently criticised his own party for a fortnight ago.

The pitiful irony is that such slavish and unthinking subservience to health and safety rules and regulations – which exist to protect us – actually puts lives in danger. In outlawing discretion and personal judgement it puts otherwise responsible adults into the mental framework of children. In situations where peoples’ lives are on the line, this becomes deadly.

A chilling example of just this occurred in Ayreshire, Scotland in 2008; the inquest of which was reported in The Times yesterday.

Alison Hume, who had fallen down a 60ft mine shaft, was left there for four hours after emergency services arrived because health and safety rules specified that the lifting gear used to lower a firefighter down to her was to be used only by firefighters.

As such, a mountain rescue team were called to get her out. A paramedic who volunteered to treat her was also prevented from being lowered in. In the end she died of a heart attack as the mountain rescue team brought to the surface – six hours after falling down the shaft.

This should not have happened. Christopher Rooney, the first senior firefighter on the scene, told the inquest that ‘on the basis of the manpower and equipment available’ it would have been possible for the firefighters to bring Ms Hume to the surface themselves, without having to wait for the mountain rescue team.

So why was Ms Hume – a mother of two – allowed to die? For the sake of a human life, would it really have been such a crime for the firefighters to use their discretion, their responsibility, their common sense and heroism to break the rules and bring her up themselves?

Dominic Lawson once wrote that when all conduct is made enforceable, the ability for people to behave a certain way purely out of moral choice and conscience is removed. The net effect of this is that otherwise reprehensible behaviour becomes defensible with the get-out ‘it was within the rules’.

Lawson was speaking about MP’s expenses at the time, but the same principle applies. Though in this instance something far more precious was lost and, unlike taxpayer’s money, it can never to be replaced.

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