Sunday, 5 January 2014

Health and Safety

Recently I was asked to look at the sillier side of the world of Health and Safety. My research turned up a number of ludicrous narratives and among them these three gems.

Marathon The modern Olympics cover a myriad of sports but for many the athletics competition remains the defining image. Of all the track and field events surely the 26 miles and 385 yards of the marathon epitomises the Olympic idea. First run to commemorate 490BC when the Greek soldier Pheidippides brought news of the victory at the Battle of Marathon over the Persians to Athens. Having run all the way and announcing "Joy, we win!", he collapsed and died. This set the distance for the modern event which, for many years, was run only at the very biggest athletics events and at a mere handful of the biggest cities in the world. Today there are some five hundred marathons run annually, with many more at half the distance. For many of us a marathon, or even a half marathon, is several miles further than we envisage walking, never mind running. Yet for those who do the main target is to beat their personal best time. Individual records were certainly on the cards in Cardiff in October 2008 when conditions for the race were ideal. Yet when a veteran of 70 half marathons across the globe discovered he had beaten his own record by almost a minute he suspected something was amiss. Soon other runners crossed the finishing line and, equipped with personal GPS systems, discovered they were still around 350 yards short of completing the race despite having crossed the finishing line. By the end of the day organisers had discovered the problem lay with newly-erected scaffolding. Not that the inanimate metal framework could be held responsible. Correctly this was the health and safety inspectors who, having examined the route for the annual Cardiff event, discovered a building had had scaffolding erected partially blocking the route. Taking the number of runners into consideration this was deemed unsafe and an alternative route laid out. It is a pity Pheidippides was not available for comment.

Channels of Bureaucracy Colchester is renowned as an old Roman town but in June of 2010 it hit the headlines for a very different reason. As with all towns the length and breadth of the country, the local council are always keen to cut costs and to ensure as much household waste as possible is recycled. Large items would be taken away on payment of a collection fee of eleven pounds. It was such an item which brought Colchester notoriety when a lady of 85 years, having paid the required fee, claimed she was 'outraged' when an official told her they could not collect her television from her house. It seems health and safety regulations restricted the council officials to collections from the kerb outside the house, insurance did not cover them in the home of the poor woman. When she telephoned the council to ask how she could dispose of the unwanted television set she was told it was her responsibility to get the set to the kerb. When news broke she found neighbours from near and far rallied to her aid and the set was quickly removed from the kerb.

Completely Nuts For some the glorious colours of autumn are the high spot of nature's calendar. In churches around the country collections of fruits and vegetables represent the bounty gathered from the fields as churchgoers celebrate the Harvest Festival. Not only are there edible fruits available at this time of year, this is also the traditional season for the dispersal of seeds by the local flora. Among the best known are the conkers from the horse chestnut once eagerly sought by schoolboys, that was until playgrounds were cleared of this mortal peril by health and safety. While the oak tree produces countless numbers of acorns, sought by squirrels and eaten by herds of swine in traditional woodlands. At Brentwood in Essex, acorns were proving more of a nuisance than a bounty as a sign was erected outside the community hospital in 2010 warning PLEASE BE AWARE OF FALLING ACORNS. This was not a warning from Henny Penny that "The sky is falling!" but a result of health and safety officers discovering an increase in turned ankles and similar injuries almost exactly twelve moths previously. Unlike the acorns feasted upon by the swine, these were not falling on the greensward beneath the woodland canopy but on the concrete paths and steps outside the hospital. Here they were to prove troublesome beneath the feet of unsuspecting pedestrians and thus when the acorns began to fall the following autumn the warning notice was put up without delay.

I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.

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