As I’ve already mentioned, Panorama this week looked at the subject of health and safety which is no laughing matter is it? Well actually, yes, sometimes it is.
One of my pet ideas is a sort of Darwin Awards for health and safety. (For those who don’t know, The Darwin Awards is an annual celebration of ‘those people who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it’, such as the Croatian man who in 2002 was killed while trying to open a hand grenade with a chainsaw to retrieve the explosive inside to make fireworks. Or there’s the one on the Darwin Awards website entitled ‘Scrotum Self Repair’ but you’d better look that one up yourself if you really want to.)
This is all a bit unpleasant, tasteless and childish but laughing at other people’s misery is what we do. It was Steve Allen who observed that comedy equals tragedy multiplied by distance and it was Mel Brooks’ assertion that ‘tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.
You only have to look at our own favourite comedies to see the wisdom of this. Fawlty Towers? A man teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in one episode he tries to hide a corpse from the other guests in his hotel. The Office? I’m Alan Partridge? Dr Strangelove? The entire output of Laurel and Hardy? Modern Times? All full of violence, misery and thwarted dreams. The Apartment? An apparent romantic comedy centring on a series of affairs and lies and a botched suicide attempt?
Yet whenever I’ve pitched this idea at the editor of a health and safety magazine, the reaction tends to be the same. They laugh, recount their own favourite funny tales of death and serious injury (such as the one about the woman who during a health and safety exhibition was following a group of about 28 health and safety inspectors when she fell down a drain; the demolition workers who blew out the floor they were standing on Wile E. Coyote style; or the man who had his arm ripped off by a machine then reached in to retrieve it with his other arm…
Then they say they can’t do it. Which is a shame really because health and safety managers do worry an awful lot about the image they have in the media. I recall an issue of one of the sector’s best magazines – Safety and Health Practitioner – which raised the issue as its cover story. ‘How the profession can fight the media’s tendency to present health and safety as a killjoy profession’ ran the cover line, heralding a counter-productively po-faced attack on the media along with the apparent minority of health and safety officers who make decisions that discredit the rest of them.
One of the problems here is that health and safety managers seem to have no problem finding bitter humour in poking fun at other people for not listening to them. Elsewhere in the same issue of SHP, there was the now standard picture of some bloke doing some work on a roof without a tether of some sort. Building magazine runs a similar picture each week; typically of some imbecile standing on a sloped roof in shorts working with a chainsaw on some overhanging tree branches. What could possibly go wrong?
Now, having a dig at such people is perfectly reasonable. Or would be except for the fact that the profession and the law believe that an employer has a duty to not only ensure the reasonable health and safety of people but also anticipate accidents brought about by the actions of bloody idiots. How exactly firms are expected to guess at what their staff and customers, some of them thick or mentally ill, may do in all circumstances seems to be rather less clear.
This principle has been reinforced by recent rulings from the House of Lords without much negative comment from the health and safety profession. In fact, such ideas seem to be broadly welcomed in the profession. One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the now infamous example of an Edinburgh hotel that was fined £400,000 a couple of years ago after a guest climbed out a third floor window for reasons known only to her and fell to her death. This was a complex case and there were some health and safety failings but the apparently key factor – why exactly this woman did what she did – didn’t affect the fine.
The ruling was broadly welcomed in the H&S sector. And that is precisely where things have gone wrong. Forget the out of context quotes and distortions of the media, the profession’s biggest enemy is itself because it works on the dogmatic principle that people need protecting from themselves, when what is apparent is that sometimes people need to take the consequences of their own actions. And that includes other people adding insult to injury.