Health & Safety

You can’t be too careful.

The 45,000 ton plus American battleship New Jersey is currently in dry dock for hull repairs.

Whilst it is on blocks, visitors are allowed to walk underneath it. They all have to wear hard hats of course, providing protection if it falls off the blocks onto them.

Mind you, they are still at unnecessary risk. You can tell it’s not in the UK as no visitors are wearing hi-vis jackets…


I didn’t need a hard hat to walk under the Cutty Sark last week.

But it’s only 2,000 tons.


Clearly 2,000 tons will only cause a graze or two but 45,000 tons could give you quite a headache…


In my own experience when I was working H&S was either way over the top or woefully inadequate.

This seemed to depend on what could be easily addressed. In the case of easily addressed factors the H&S was usually way over the top. In the cases where things were either awkward or expensive to address effectively then H&S seemed to be suddenly a lot less important.

In my working days as a commercial insurance broker I came to regard H & S as essential.

However, a lot of the rules & regulations appeared, to me, to benefit no one save for the vast army of highly paid civil servants, in whose interest it was to continually come up with new, unnecessary rules & continually amend & complicate existing & important ones to the point when the people who should have benefited from them, found them hard to understand &/or implement them.

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Tell my mate Chucky about Health and Safety.


Twenty years ago, a new build was taking place outside our office window. For several days, the brickies built the walls for the lowest storey. No hard hats. On the day the RSJs were winched into position, several senior people were in attendance so everyone was wearing hard hats. The next day, the brickies cracked on with building the second storey. No hard hats.

I had no idea hard hats would be so useless against a falling brick, but so life-saving against a falling steel girder.


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When people talk about health and safety they are usually talking about the Health and Safety at Work act, and the regulations under it’s umbrella. So unless he is flying that thing as his day job he can do what he likes.

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Think if it falls off the blocks a hard hat might be a little inadequate.

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In my 50 years working in laboratories with all sorts of extreme hazards including boiling concentrated acids and alkalis, molten sodium, extremely potent poisons, highly reactive substances, extremely flammable and highly volatile solvents, high-pressure gases, very high temperatures etc, of course as well as more common hazards, there was never a serious injury. That is in probably somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 person days. That is because ingrained in everyone from the very start was an understanding of what they were working with, the hazards associated, and appropriate precautions. Everyone learnt to do what these days would be called a dynamic risk assessment, as an automatic process so they did not even think about it other when encountering something new. It was not called “health and safety”, but “safe practice in the laboratory”. Roll on to relatively recent years, and two things were noticeable: Firstly, new staff out of school or higher education seemed to know less and less of the hazards, I think because practical science was reducing, and educational establishments shying off doing anything hazardous because of “health and safety” fears. This made it increasingly challenging to bring in inexperienced staff. And secondly, things like the demand for formal risk assessments of everything, which though in theory did not have to be written, in effect if not written there was no proof that assessment had been done and managers were open to legal action. The trouble with written risk assessments was the tendency to make people think it’s all on that piece of paper so I don’t need to think about it, increasing risk not reducing it!

I’m not sure that that is the case, rather there were reactions to every serious accident anywhere, all in the name of trying to prevent it happening again, but unfortunately in so doing creating a one size fits all framework. In theory that was fine, and should work, it being for the businesses/managers to identify actual need and apply. But the problem was that H&S enforcers would interpret to the opposite extreme, and in the event of anyone being seriously injured they would prosecute citing their more extreme approach as best practice. That caused businesses and organisations to start avoiding things that might possibly be hazardous, citing “H&S”, and hiding behind it - which is where H&S gets its bad name.

I recall one particular incident in mid-late 1990s, when late one night I attended the scene of a fire at a plant using chemicals. (One of my roles was scientific adviser to the emergency services). Sadly one person had died. At one point I was going through the list of chemicals with the plant manager to verify details, this while he was being treated by ambulance staff for burns on his arm, and with the agreement of the paramedic. He was clearly in a state of shock, and getting clear information took some effort. At that point two Health & Safety Inspectors arrived, marching into the incident room and demanding to see whoever was the plant manager, whereupon they immediately butted in and started to interview him under caution. The paramedics told them they had to wait, and there was an argument but the medics held their ground and the inspectors backed off. What shocked me was the complete absence of humanity - here was someone clearly very much in shock and still being treated for injuries, but the only thing important was getting information so that they could prosecute someone because regardless what happened if someone has died someone in the organisation must be responsible and be prosecuted. I lost respect for H&S inspectors at that point, and nothing that happened in the remaining 20-25 years of my career enamoured the to me generally, although a few individuals were different and the principle of enforcing due care for H&S in the workplace is absolutely a good thing.


Very informative. Thank you.