Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Conkers Head sends readers goggle-eyed

An interesting piece in the Comment is Free part of the Guardian today, as Shaun Halfpenny, head of Cummersdale Primary School in Carlisle, tells the truth about the "Schoolchildren wear goggles to play conkers" story that, frankly, spawned a monster. Mr Halfpenny, it turns out, was the man who initiated the wearing of goggles whilst playing conkers. Unfortunately, thanks to some digging by Guardian readers, developed in the comments section, it turns out that what he's actually writing is, at best, poorly remembered, and at worst an attempt to completely revise the whole history of the event.

In the Guardian piece, Mr Halfpenny says "It was a child who actually asked if they could wear goggles". This, however, is not what was reported at the time. The BBC covered the story by quoting Mr Halfpenny as saying "
I said they would have to wear goggles to play, mainly because they could get bits of conker in the eye. They thought it was a great idea."The Cumberland News also reported that "Mr Halfpenny said he had no choice because of health and safety rules...'The children asked to play conkers in school and I thought it would be really mean if I said no. These days you cannot be too careful, especially when health and safety inspectors are watching.'"

"What are they doing?" "They're playing conkers, without wearing goggles." "Fuck it, that's too dangerous. We're going in."

The BBC also quotes Mr Halfpenny as saying "It's just being sensible", to which the only correct reply is "No it fucking isn't". A few people have said to me "Oh, Health and Safety is just common sense", which is fine, until you spend 30 seconds thinking of some of the idiotic things your workmates do, and then realise that you may have to rely on their "common sense".

The thing that really baffles me about this Guardian piece though is that after having kids wear goggles, Mr Halfpenny then went to the media and told them about it. The "Health and Safety has gone completely over the top" attitude was well underway by then, as shown by this article by Jeremy Clarkson. How the Head didn't realise that the story was going to run and run is frankly, remarkable. It seems in this case, the Head didn't use his, well, head.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Tories go after health and safety, brick by brick

In the time that has passed since I last updated this blog (apologies for that), I turned 28. Time to start getting respectable, stop dressing like a student and acting like a proper grown-up and everything. Well, no. As exhibited by my choice of advent calender, which this year is Lego Pirates (I suppose technically the fact I have an advent calender at all is really an indication that I haven't really grown up yet, but there you go). Honestly, it's great, you get a few bits of Lego each day that make up a character or some Pirate furniture or something. Behind the first window was a cheery Pirate captain. I noticed that the stud at the top of the head of the character was open, presumably so that if a child swallowed it, they wouldn't choke (as much) on it as air would pass through the head. I mentioned this at work, which was obviously a mistake, as people started off on the "Oh, how did we survive all when we were kids" bollocks, before someone launched into an anecdote about how they were in a shop that wasn't allowing anyone under the age of 21 to buy crackers because there's a bit of gunpowder in them and how health and safety has gone too far nowadays. I said it was probably something that the shop had bought in itself, and wasn't part of actual law, a bit like when it was claimed that "Health and Safety" (by which most people mean the Health and Safety Executive) had banned kids in school playing conkers, when that hadn't happened and it was the head of one school that had made children wear goggles when playing conkers until someone had said to him "Don't you think that's a bit daft?" Unfortunately it seemed like the only words of my explanation my work colleagues heard were "goggles" and "conkers" and they went away now believing that all schools had to put kids in some sort of protective coccoon before they went outside, and I was left banging my head against my desk in frustration (metaphorically speaking, obviously).

With ignorance like that, it's no wonder newspapers spray the "Health and Safety gone mad" routine all over their print and web editions. It's so much easier to believe the lie or exageration than to actually find out the truth. What's even more depressing is that the Tories have swallowed all those lies and are now using them to try and win votes. The anecdotes used by Cameron in his speech (and, as uksceptic once said to me, "remember, anecdotes ain't worth shit) are a mixture of half-truths and some rare, slightly over-officious people. But just because a few people are a bit over the top shouldn't taint the whole health and safety industry - you wouldn't say that the guy that you got in to do your bathroom, who made a right mess of it is an example of "plumbing gone mad".

Cameron goes on to say:

The Health and Safety Executive enforces 202 statutory instruments – or regulations: two thirds of these were passed in the ninety-nine years before Labour came to power...

...a third of them in the twelve years since.

Some of these over-officious, bereaucratic nonsense regulations bought are to do with (list from the IOSH website):

Control of asbestos
Decommissioning of nuclear reactors
Offshore safety
Control of lead
Pipelines safety
Control of major accident hazards
Control of noise at work
Export/import of dangerous chemicals

According to IOSH, 180 people died last year in accidents at work. 180. The Health and Safety Executive lists some of them here. That is the real work of the HSE, preventing those deaths and injuries that are all too easy to stop. But Cameron has decided to focus instead on lies and media exaggeration instead.