Sometimes health and safety failures can be a laughing matter

Wile E CoyoteOne of the regular refrains from those involved in health and safety management is that while they aren’t killjoys, protecting people from harm is no laughing matter. Well actually yes, sometimes it is. And if the health and safety profession wants to shake off the po-faced image it claims is unjust, it needs to realise that some of the people it is trying to protect are just bloody idiots. And however much you try to make things idiot-proof, you’re unlikely to make them bloody-idiot-proof. Some people will always come up with something you haven’t thought of and a new way to put themselves in harm’s way.

One of the pet ideas that has been clogging up my head for years but has yet to make it to publication is a version of the Darwin Awards for health and safety. (For those who don’t know, The Darwin Awards is an annual celebration of ‘those people who improve the species by accidentally removing themselves from it’, such as the Croatian man who in 2002 was killed while trying to open a hand grenade with a chainsaw to retrieve the explosive inside to make fireworks. Or there’s the one on the Darwin Awards website entitled ‘Scrotum Self Repair’ but you’d better look that one up yourself if you really want to.)

Of course, this is all a bit unpleasant and sometimes childish but laughing at other people’s misery is what we do. It was Steve Allen who observed that comedy equals tragedy multiplied by distance and it was Mel Brooks’ assertion that ‘tragedy is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die’.

You only have to look at our own favourite comedies to see the wisdom of this. Fawlty Towers? A man unsuited to his job teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown; in one episode he even tries to hide a corpse from the other guests in his hotel. The Office? Alan Partridge? Dr Strangelove? Laurel and Hardy? All full of violence, mental illness, despair, misery and thwarted dreams.

Yet whenever I’ve pitched my idea to the editor of a health and safety magazine, the reaction tends to be the same. They laugh, recount their own favourite funny tales of death and serious injury (such as the one about the woman who during a health and safety exhibition was following a group of 28 health and safety inspectors when she fell down a drain; the demolition workers who blew out the floor they were standing on Wile E. Coyote style.

Then they say they can’t do it.

Which is a shame really because health and safety managers do worry an awful lot about the image they have in the media. I recall one issue of trade publication Safety and Health Practitioner even raised the issue as its cover story. ‘How the profession can fight the media’s tendency to present health and safety as a killjoy profession’ ran the cover line, heralding a counter-productively po-faced attack on the media, the minority of health and safety officers who make decisions that discredit the rest of them and those organisations who use ‘health and safety’ to justify policies and decisions that have nothing to do with it.

One of the problems here is that health and safety managers seem to have no problem poking fun at other people for not listening to them. Elsewhere in the same issue of SHP, there was the now standard picture of some bloke doing some work on a roof without a tether of some sort. Building magazine used to run a similar picture each week; typically of some imbecile standing on a sloped roof in shorts working with a chainsaw on some overhanging tree branches. What could possibly go wrong?

Now, having a dig at such people is perfectly reasonable. Or would be except for the fact that the profession and the law believe that an employer has a duty to not only ensure the reasonable health and safety of people but also anticipate accidents brought about by the actions of bloody idiots. How exactly firms are expected to guess at what people may do in all circumstances seems to be rather less clear.

This principle has been reinforced by recent rulings from the House of Lords without much negative comment from the health and safety profession. In fact, some seem to be broadly welcomed. One of the best examples I can think of to demonstrate this is the now infamous example of an Edinburgh hotel that was fined £400,000 when a guest climbed out a third floor window for reasons known only to her and fell to her death. This was a complex case and there were some health and safety failings but the apparently key factor – why exactly this woman did what she did – didn’t affect the fine. The ruling was commended by many in the health and safety sector. It’s one of the reasons why windows that open completely are now rare in hotels.

So forget the out of context quotes and undoubted distortions of the media, the profession’s biggest enemy is itself because it often works on the dogmatic principle that people need protecting from themselves, when what is apparent is that sometimes what people really need is to take the consequences of their own actions. Nobody should want to see another person hurt, but those consequences might well include others adding insult to their injury.