Safe or Silly?

Dry dock health and safety regulations

Do you remember when common sense was common, when a certain level of basic knowledge of life could be confidently expected in anyone who was an adult and allowed out on their own? In those days a sensible reaction to everyday dangers was confidently assumed to be common. You learnt it when your mum taught you to cross the road - “Hold my hand--look left-- look right” Why, mummy? ”Because cars are hard, fast and can kill you.” Oh, right. “Look where you’re going, child, concentrate!” Why, daddy? “Because you might trip up, fall over, cut your head, roll over this cliff, break your neck or drown.” Oh, right. Part of growing up is being taught to recognise danger and assess the risks, then learning how to avoid them, minimise them or, indeed, risk them. It becomes your choice and personal judgement, honed by your own personal experience. But you have to have some real experience for the teaching to be meaningful.

But now, under the pressure of panic caused by lawsuits for damages your risks are being assessed for you, by experts. Well, that sounds kind and considerate. Thank you. Unfortunately many of these young or newly appointed experts rarely know enough to give a useful old-fashioned judgement and with today’s corporate nervousness nobody is encouraged to take the personal responsibility for saying yes to anything. Instead of assessing danger, then warning and training people to cope with that risk it is so much easier and safer to say no, to remove the people from the risk, to simply deny access. Risk assessment is in danger of becoming a joke. Risk assessment has become the by-word for making interesting things difficult if not impossible and it seems to be seeping into the waterways like a fungus. It may be the way to a quiet life in the office but it’s also the way to a dull life, and ultimately to a more dangerous one. People ill equipped to cope with small emergencies are going to be hopeless when faced with a serious one. They are simply less well-educated to cope with ordinary life. If we are never credited with common sense and allowed to develop it then there will be more accidents, not less.

Examples? O.K. I’m seeking to use a B.W. wet dock for some signwriting, but permission can only be given provided that safety boots and hard hats are worn at all times. This, in a boathouse with no overhead risk, would seem to ensure that if I do fall in I will drown much more efficiently. Is it all right if I sweep up first and work in sandals? No, rules is rules.

I wanted to film a horse boat at Wheelock but before permission could be granted a risk assessment had to be discussed and undertaken with the local engineer, a young man new to the job. Fine, what do you want to know? Well, how heavy is the horse? What!? Why? Well, I’m concerned about the effect that it might have on the towpath where it crosses the aqueduct. Do you mean the same towpath that the public and boaters use daily, the aqueduct that supports the Trent and Mersey canal, the one that dozens of hire boats bash across everyday? Yes… Happily he’s moved on now and is probably assessing the strength of your motorway bridges.

Horseboating again. Nowadays, according to the official mind, you need one person ahead of the horse to warn other towpath users that there is a horse coming, someone else in charge of the horse and then another person way behind to warn hurtling mountain bikers that there’s a slow moving obstruction on the towpath ahead. Oh yes, and that person has to clear up any horseshit too because someone might slip in it and hold the canal company responsible. Unfortunately the really essential extra crew needed today is someone constantly clearing the towline over the bushes and weeds that have been allowed to grow and obstruct the proper use of the towpath. However, that’s not health and safety but poor conservation (and another story.)

I’m decorating and signwriting another boat in a dry dock, and the local BW staff are as pleasant and helpful as could be. However they are forbidden to allow me to use any of their scaffold planks in case I fall off them into the bottom of the dock. Did you get that? They cannot lend me anything that I might then set up in an unsafe manner from which I might hurt myself. Oh come on - I understand that risk, and I hate pain, so why can I not make my own safety judgements? It is a dangerous occupation staying alive and earning a living but I’ve managed it so far. Surely you can allow me some common sense? No, sorry, canals are dangerous and accidents happen far too often.

But is it actually more dangerous than it used to be? Perhaps it’s like crime. If you go to a city with a million people you are statistically bound to be within half a mile of a lot of criminals. Go to sparsely populated countryside and sit in a field and you’ll probably be twenty or thirty miles from the nearest villain. However, the actual odds of getting robbed are possibly very similar. So too with accidents. Populate the canals with a huge increase in people and the rate of accidents will go up proportionately. Accidents do happen, and a proportion of humanity does not assess the risks as competently as others. But we all have to learn and a good way is still the classic hard way. Your parent, guardian or mentor introduces you to the danger, warns you and explains it, and then you adolescently ignore them or push the boundaries and get hurt. Usually, thank goodness it is not fatal, but statistically, on average, it will occasionally be crippling or tragic. That’s life (and death), that’s the reality of education in real life, and it’s what makes the rest of us, the survivors and mourners, assess the risks more soberly and accurately in the future. We learn a bit, deeply. With our new knowledge, our sharp experience, we then try to warn and explain the risks to our own children, friends, colleagues or those that want to learn. But is it then right to impose our new opinion on everybody? At what point do you refuse to allow somebody else to experience the danger and learn to assess the risks for themselves? If you never let a child strike a match and light a fire (and burn their fingers) how do they really understand the risks and dangers of fire? Is there really a better, quicker, less painful way to prepare them for a rich proper life? I hope so, but I doubt it.

Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, August  2003

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