In his recent article on Health and Safety, Olivier Vergnault omitted two crucial words “at work” – an omission that, in my view has so permeated the British psyche that two generations have grown up so risk averse they now can’t recognise risk when it’s present (as in the recent spate of life-saving by RNLI lifeguards on Westcountry beaches).
The overbearing culture of “risk assessment” denies many the excitement of field-trips and expeditions previously led by schools for fear of litigation.
Indeed, so risk and litigation averse has the nation become that, when as a Wildlife Trust volunteer I volunteered to photograph flora along the banks of a chalk-stream, I received an earnest email from a young graduate ingenue exhorting me to make a risk assessment, and ensure I wore a flotation collar and carried a heaving line.
Gently teasing, I promised not to go “bird-nesting” in trees or shallows, and tongue in cheek, reassured her I would photograph the flora while doing the assessment.
Risk aversion aside, the reduction in deaths at work from 650 in 1974 to 133 on the face of it, is worthy of comment.
But as an ageing cynic I would suggest this was due more to the rapid decline of Britain’s merchant fleet, coal mining and heavy industries rather than to the efforts of well intentioned but tardy lawyers.
The figures for industrial deaths in 1912 and 1913, excluding those from industrial diseases, were 23,000 and 22,000 respectively – a quarter of deaths at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Industrial deaths were almost exclusively reserved for the “lower orders” whose average age at death was 40-45, while that for gentry was 60+.
Used as they were to squalor and danger at home and at work, and with unemployment hitting 6% in August 1914 for the first time since 1904, it is unsurprising that naval and army recruiting offices were overwhelmed by eager “volunteers”, “Packing up their troubles” and opting to swop unemployment and the harsh hardship of their peace-time living and working conditions, for the army.
And indeed, of every three recruits, two were “support troops” in rear areas who would never see service at the front or anywhere near it.
And since then, as Olivier Vergnault correctly indicates, industrial deaths in today’s de-industrialised Britain have reduced to under 1% of that awful 1913 total – or have they not simply been exported to the emerging economies of Asia, India, and South America that now are home to the iron-foundries and sweat-shops of the world.
So, if Britain does have a Health and Safety law of which to be proud, isn’t it a shame, that like the arms it now manufactures, it can’t be exported with them – for in my opinion, its main contribution to life in Britain has been to produce a largely risk averse and litigious society and bureaucracy that is afraid of its own shadows!