Tonight’s Panorama seems to be premised on a piece of bar-room wisdom; the one that tells us the world is going to hell in a handcart thanks to health and safety killjoys. Well, sometimes the bloke at the bar might have a point of sorts but maybe not for the reasons he thinks.
As we all know, the modern workplace is a death trap. Most of us are lucky to get home in one piece at the end of each day, regardless of the job we do. Of course, technically the most dangerous professions are those such as agriculture, forestry and construction. Proper, hardcore industries which employ proper, hardcore people, some of them working miles from the nearest outpost of civilisation, in the open air, doing what used to be considered the core functions of work, namely making things or destroying things or moving things from one place to another.
This kind of work is dangerous because it often involves operating machines and tools that use hammers, winches, tungsten blades, cables, scoops, belts, wheels, cogs, drills, explosives and spikes to chop, lift, skewer, smash, pierce, detonate, slice, chip and topple heavy, pointy otherwise inanimate objects such as trees, buildings, rocks and dead cows. Sometimes the people putting their arses on the line in this way do so while they’re up ladders, driving or stood on top of, next to or at the base of the heavy, pointy, suddenly moving objects.
Of course, you’d never believe this sort of stuff was all that dangerous compared to the work of us poor lambs who stare at computers all day. Not if you were just to read about the sheer number of risks that we apparently take when we sit down. No part of our body is now safe from the degradations of office work, not our hands, arms, backs, necks and legs; all of them at risk of moving too often or not enough or in the wrong direction. Our noses are assailed by smoke, perfume, solvents, poor air and positive ions. Our ears by ringtones and machines and other people’s yap. Our hearts, lungs and bodily fluids subjected to the most appalling risks.
Even our genitals are not safe. The Lancet once reported the case of a 50 year old Swedish scientist who had burned his penis with his laptop after working with it in an armchair for an hour without moving. The man claimed he was dressed at the time, but it’s fair to say that expert opinion on this matter veers towards the sceptical.
Then of course there’s the impact office work has on the inside of our heads. Recent figures show that stress is now the number one source of magazine articles in the world today. Regular readers who occasionally make it beyond the first two paragraphs of this column will know my views on this so I don’t feel the need to rehash them here.
Suffice to say that based on what you might read, nobody is actually doing any work in Britain nowadays, because, if they’re not at a physiotherapist, they are rendered completely unproductive by depression and murderous fantasies about their co-workers.
There are lots of reasons why we have arrived at this point but the most important one is to do with the way that marketing functions through the media in the UK. Companies with a product to sell need to build a business case for it and that means raising a concern with customers or possibly scaring the shit out of them either with a direct personal appeal to them or with the threat of harm and litigation.
This is a perfectly valid way of doing business of course, and I wouldn’t have a business without it, but it can lead to problems. One of them is the potential for some claims to confuse the hell out of people. For example a year or so back, I saw a survey by Travelodge that claimed that late-sleeping workers are causing the UK economy up to £619m in lost productivity, based on the finding that half of the UK’s workforce will arrive late to work on any given day – 20 per cent or six million, of whom would have overslept. At the same time an organisation calling itself Siesta Awareness launched Siesta Awareness Day on the 11 July, claiming that a ‘20 minute nap in the middle of a working day can increase productivity by over 30 per cent and alertness by 100 per cent as well as improve memory and concentration. Recent research shows that we can also reduce stress and the risk of heart disease by 34 per cent. Sleep deprivation has been shown to make weight loss more difficult as well as cause accidents at work and on the road.’ Draw your own conclusions.
As well as confusing claims, there is also the potential for workplace scare stories to throw up some dubious claims and some that are plain nonsense. I know it’s wrong to stereotype people, but the worst culprits for peddling new age tat are magazines aimed at predominantly female audiences such as PAs and secretaries. For example – and I won’t name the magazine involved – I recently read an article about RSI that claimed that the solution had nothing to do with medical advice, seating and training but was to use magnets, which apparently draw blood to the afflicted area of the arm by attracting the iron in the red corpuscles. You could argue about that, but really there is a one word response to it.