Monday, 4 October 2010

On Health and Safety

I recently oversaw preparations for Health and Safety inspections of two youth clubs. They passed with decent scores, although another club managed a Mugabe-esque 99%. I can only guess that my counterpart frequently picked his nose during the meeting with the inspector.

For two months leading up to the inspections, I and colleagues prepared for them. We were assiduous. We wrote or adapted risk assessments ranging from ‘Managing Terrorist Incidents’ to ‘Playing Pool' and, just to be on the safe side, ‘Standing Up Without Falling Over’, for I am a stickler when I get going. We met often, we argued into the night, we guessed and we second-guessed; true, we sometimes erred - but only on the side of caution. At times we even wept together. But my God, we got those two youth clubs through it all!

The trouble was, we did very little else for those two months, and at a time when there were young people out there waiting for us to complicate their lives still further. And when it was all over I had to have my pregnancy-compatible office chair surgically removed from my buttocks. But enough: I could go on about the absurdities of Health and Safety but that's not really my point today. You have The Daily Mail if you need to be reminded that badly.

Anyway, as you'll imagine, a big part of me is pleased that the Government has announced that it will be taking a tough stance on Health and Safety legislation. I hope that Lord Young’s campaign isn’t just talk but also has length, width and girth. I hope he will be as purgative now as he was when he helped put a nation on the dole in the 1980s.

It’ll be tough. Health and Safety (see: even I instinctively capitalise it) is the nearest thing we have to religion now, just as safe sex is the nearest to a moral code, emotional wellbeing the closest to conscience and following a football club - I am a Charlton Athletic supporter - is our best shy at wartime stoicism. They are all of a piece.

But Health and Safety is more than a stack of regulations awaiting a match: it has a creed, a liturgy, priests, acolytes, lumpen masses, wild-eyed heretics and doe-eyed enforcers. People with power and influence really do believe in it and even those who are agnostic render its dues unto Caesar without thought, let alone comment. It's an unhappy marriage of eternal human yearning and time-bound utilitarianism in which neither partner can admit their mutual incompatibility but cling instead to the always-absent ideal of love.

In trying to reform it at the level of regulation we miss the point: like our obsession with risk and mine with Charlton Athletic, Health and Safety is a repository, however meagre, however warped and laughable, for deeper human needs, and the debate about it - if we're ever bold enough to have one - will need to have that in mind.

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