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The pendulum swings

The crusade was valiant but the battle is lost. My other half has casually opened the door to the irresistible force of health ‘n’ safety, imposing a tough bathroom hygiene regime. Instead of sharing our germs with each other - an approach which has passed muster for a decade or so - all family members have been assigned individual, colour-coded hand and bath towels.

Quite where the top-floor sink fits into this protocol has not yet been announced. Neither is it clear what guests are to do. Perhaps I’ll be asked to blow them dry. Either way, my suggestion of an environmental impact study prior to implementation was overruled, leaving the washing machine tumbling towards oblivion.

Yes, the excruciating delights of health ‘n’ safety touch all our lives. Hull’s firefighters can no longer borrow a householder’s stepladder when fitting smoke alarms. Special platforms have to be deployed instead. Last year’s Guy Fawkes celebrations at Ilfracombe Rugby Club featured a ‘virtual’ bonfire projected onto a giant screen. Council safety regulations choked the real thing with red tape.

All of which should be music to the ears of those bubble-wrapped chappies at the HSE. Or so you’d think. Yet it seems that even they’re seeking to distance themselves from the barmy army of killjoys who seek to irradiate every conceivable uncertainty.

Their ‘Principles of Sensible Risk Management’ (available on the interweb) must make fascinating reading to those embroiled in the shambles of ATWS type approval in the late nineties. No longer sheltering in the trenches, an enlightened HSE has declared that we should “enable innovation, not stifle it”. The creation of “useless paperwork mountains” is roundly condemned. Hoist the Union Jack! enlightened HSE has declared that we should “enable innovation, not stifle it”.... Hoist the Union Jack!

Sadly, the absurd banality of today’s health ‘n’ safety serves to obscure the good that it’s done. With insight from retired railwaymen, I’m currently writing a collection of short stories on great, forgotten relics of our former infrastructure. Albert Oversby joined a three-man gang at Ingleton - home to a splendid 11-arch viaduct - back in 1951. Lookouts, he recalls, were an unaffordable luxury so every man kept his eyes peeled. Lone gangers were especially vulnerable. Four succumbed locally - one was killed by a train during a snow storm.

It’s easy to forget that high-visibility clothing - a track safety cornerstone which we all take for granted - wasn’t around then either. But even something so simple is now ensnared in health ‘n’ safety’s tangled web. Apparently it’s not enough to specify a vest’s size and fluorescent orange colour. Oh no. Within set tolerances, the background material should have target chromaticity coordinates of x=0.588 and y=0.371. There’s no latitude with luminescence - a minimum factor of 0.4βmin is demanded. Neither can a garment’s chromaticity vary from the requirements of BS EN 471:1994 after light exposure or laundering. The configuration of retroreflective strips must conform to the specification detailed in clause 4.2.3 class (c) of that standard. You just couldn’t make it up.

There are three ways to deal with this pollution overspill. One is simply to ignore it - a dangerous road to travel in our litigious society, although the industry does quietly tolerate some deviation from defined paths. Another is to recruit regiments of bean counters to certify that all embellishments are in their rightful place. This has been our chosen and costly course post-privatisation. Finally there could be a resolute clean up drive, which presumably would receive the blessing of our reformed, free-thinking regulator.

Though it pains me to say it, we should all be thankful for health ‘n’ safety. A scattering of commonsense safeguards have transformed the working lives of many thousands in high-risk occupations, the railway amongst them. But the pendulum can swing too far - a fact often overlooked by safety engineers with one track minds, who’ve eagerly buried frontline activity beneath a burden of irrelevance.

If you fancy stepping back to a simpler time, you can marvel at the abandoned endeavours of proper engineers online at As for me, I’m washing my hands of this article and I’ll be spending the next two hours working out which towel to dry them with.

Story added 1st August 2007
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