As a 71-year-old retiree, now occupying myself writing books on various subjects, I occasionally question some of the present day attitudes towards health and safety, both in the workplace as well in everyday living. I accept the need for health and safety controls and regulations to minimize the risk of personal injury, but in some respects, I think things are going too far.
I served in a maintenance engineering apprenticeship from 1958 to 1966, in a heavy industrial plant, located in rural England. From day one, we were taught basic safety protocols, without much of the PPE (personal protection equipment) found in any working environment nowadays. We had no protective helmets, no protective shoes, and things such as safety harnesses, when working at heights, hadn’t been thought of.
Despite this, during the period of my apprenticeship there were remarkably few serious accidents. I believe this was due to an awareness of danger that was instilled in our conscious minds without us becoming risk averse. One of the skilled fitters, who taught me my trade, wore nothing but rubber wellington boots all year round – summer and winter alike. He lived to be a good age and during his long service at the mill, he never suffered any injuries to his feet.
I’m not decrying health and safety in principle, but when I hear that children in England are now prevented from playing with conkers (horse chestnuts) in the school playing area because the game is deemed to be dangerous, it is taking safety precautions too far.
I realize life today is very different from when I was a young lad, and there are dangers these days that didn’t exist then, but looking back at my childhood, I realize that we had lots of fun learning how to survive during the growing up process.
In the summer months, we would swim in the River Dane and the murky waters of the Macclesfield Canal, and still we lived to tell the tale. Climbing trees to great heights was always good fun, and the sense of danger from the risk of a fall, focused the mind regarding secure foot holds and gripping on tight with our hands.
I believe these skills put me in good stead for later life, whenever I found myself in a hazardous situation, and sensible precautions were vital to provide personal safety protection.
Following my apprenticeship, I served in the Merchant Navy as an assistant engineering officer, and that truly was a dangerous environment in which to operate. Again, this was before such PPE items as protective helmets were widely adopted in the workplace and within the marine industry, there were many serious injuries from all manner of potential dangers.
I recall an incident in the engine room of a steamship, when after completing my four-hour watch, I hung my boiler suit over a hand rail by the DC heater to dry it out for my next watch. The DC heater was located at the top of the engine room, and regrettably, I had left my adjustable spanner in the leg pocket. During the course of the following watch, the spanner slipped out of the leg pocket and fell through the open decking below. Our fourth engineer was on the lower deck plates when the spanner brushed passed his shoulder, thereby giving him a nasty shock, but miraculously, he was not injured. Had the spanner hit him on his head, he would no doubt have suffered serious injury, if not instant death.
That incident taught me a great deal about safety, and when I left the Merchant Navy and spent the next forty years working in most industry sectors, I always donned my safety helmet wherever there was a danger of falling objects.
Now referring back to the guy wearing the wellington boots, what I didn’t divulge then was, as a young man, he had lost the thumb from his left hand and later on in life, he lost his right hand, which was amputated above his wrist, following a severe injury to the palm of his hand.
He was an experimenter by nature, and both these serious injuries resulted from accidents involving his personal pursuits and not from the workplace.
I believe strongly in the prevention of accidents, but on the other hand, I do feel that nanny state has gone a little too far and that some sectors of society are becoming risk averse. Life itself involves many aspects of risk and allowing children to partake in fun games and sporting activities develops their awareness of danger, whilst at the same time allows them the opportunity to enrich their lives by stimulation from activities involving some level of risk.
I haven’t saved many items of memorabilia from my childhood, but tucked away in my personal files is a training aid that was presented to each pupil in our class, when I was attending St Mary’s infant and junior school between 1948 and 1954.
This cardboard wallet has a rotating centerpiece which can be observed by means of the arrows either side. When the circular insert is rotated, the teacher’s arm lists all the safety instructions in turn, beginning with a blank blackboard.
I can’t explain why I’ve kept this training aid all those years except to say that, “I like it, and I’ve never come across anything quite the same in all my years on Earth!"