Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Health and Safety on the Inland Waterways

Our cruise this year is providing me with much to muse upon. Its not often that I have time for politicians of any flavour. When it comes to political parties segregated by their colour. Blue is not good for me, neither is Yellow though I do have a liking for Green because it matches my spots. But I still hold a bit of a crush on the colour Red! Not the new rosé red or labour lite, just the old red.

When it come down to the Inland Waterways, the choice of colour however is a stark one. There is the Environment Agency Blue. Or the Canal and River Trust Grey. So until such time as the Environment Agency gets its act together again. Unlike like the Henry Ford choice of colour, the trust will continue to perform in it usual 50 Shades of depressing Grey.

Take for instance the grey area of Health and Safety.  There is more stupidity spouted about protecting people from themselves - presumably done in the belief that everyone is Extremely Stupid. However, sometimes the extremity of the stupidity scale, is extended by those who are expected to act sensibly towards implementing Health and Safety. I'm not in favour of the nanny state or wishy washy health and safety bunkum. Even the HSE has a section on its website debunking the mythology of health and safety used inappropriately.

In a previous working life, I would sometimes as part of my job move bits of equipment between two buildings. Then like 'political correctness' before it - health and safety became the current fashion trend in the workplace. We had portering staff who had been subjected to a round of  Health and Safety training. Who on their return had for some reason, implemented a 'risk assessment' on their job. Afterwards, it seemed they were now absolved from portering. So we had to do it for ourselves.

The first thing was I had to undergo was some health and safety awareness training. Just to be able to make my own personal risk assessments. So off I went on a course which lasted 14 weeks. (that's not a typo) it was 14 weeks long and conducted in a place about 20 miles from my place of employment. As luck would have it, the training was about 5 miles from my home. So it was easier and less fraught from the dangers of riding a motorcycle through heavy commuter traffic to work each day.

Then there I was, 14 weeks later and ready for the task in hand. I walked between the two buildings which I had done hundreds of times before. I made copious notes to identify every risk I could find. This was then incorporated into a lengthy document on which the health and safety audit with its associated risk assessments would be based. For each identified hazard, a further risk assessment was made. The size, weight and shape of the items to be moved was established. A route was then chosen (from a choice of one) to minimise risk. A suitable means of transport was chosen. (A small four wheeled hand cart was purchased) So how did it work out. Whenever I went between buildings, I would just pick up the items and carry them as I had done before. It was quicker and easier than lugging a small trolley about!

Shortly afterwards, this over reaction, best described as the 'institutional approach to health and safety' was abandoned by my employers and replaced once again by good old common sense. The health and safety training certificate was consigned to the bin. The porters returned to portering and all was well once again in the world of academia.

You may have been wondering why I started off today's musings by reference to politicians.  Well unusually, myself and a politician of a blue persuasion actually agreed with each other.

'They are now the most powerful lobbying force in the land. You can see the results of their campaigns on park benches, on street corners, on station platforms – and now their hectoring signage is sprouting on desolate beaches and once unspoiled stretches of moorland. They are more energetic than the RSPCA. They are more effective than the birdwatchers, the child‑protectors and the petrolheads put together. Indeed, for manic dedication they are only rivalled by Fathers4Justice. Ladies and gentlemen, let's have a big hand for this year's winner of the prize for the Most Successful Special Interest Group. I give you – the Royal Society for the Extremely Stupid.'  So said, Boris Johnson writing in the Daily Telegraph.

Now you also might also be wondering why I had also set out with a reference to the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust. Well its because they seem to have very different views with regard to implementing Health and Safety and the subsequent management of the risk. Walk around the inland waterways system and you will find its a dangerous environment. There is going to be a risk of drowning and the ground underfoot is going to be filled with potential tripping hazards. Experience has told us about these ever present dangers. Life is full of life long learning opportunities (personal risk assessments). In other words we live and we learn. 

There is a whole new branch of Health and Safety implementation. One that suggests that people can become desensitised to assessing personal risk and become reliant on someone else watching out for their safety. I remember one of the questions we were asked on the Health and Safety course was. If you put up a 'beware of the dog' notice on your garden gate are you making people aware that you have a dangerous animal. Or are you making people aware that you just have a dog. Where a simple 'please close the gate' notice might be more appropriate. 

Producing safety signs is a big business today. Much research has gone into producing images and words blended together to create an eye catching impact and an instant understanding of the potential risks. In other words, you can fulfil the requirements of much of the current Health and Safety legislation with appropriate signs. 

Now if a pothole suddenly appears in the towpath. The risk can be mitigated by temporary fencing, until a repair can take place. It would not be appropriate to place a sign instead of a temporary fence. However, placing occasional blanket notices or catch all notices along the towpath about the risk of potholes occurring would not be appropriate either.  

There are going to be times when new risks need to be signed. In some cases the risk will need to be fenced. There is always the temptation to think that a sign attached to a broken bit of machinery can be used as a stop gap. Until a some time in the future when its more convenient to make a repair. The problem with this is as the signs grow in number. So does the public awareness of a growing back log of repairs. The signs begin to predominate and their impact is then lost.

A regular Health and Safety concern is when someone drowns, usually a teenager or child. There are then calls for the canals to be fenced. However, it would be totally impractical to fence off the canals. In some cases the fencing could itself provide its own hazard. Placing a fence round the edge of a lock would be impractical for many reasons. Placing a fence round the perimeter of a lock might be more feasible, but what real Health and Safety purpose would it serve. There is also the visual amenity to consider as well as spoiling the heritage aspects. 

Now to further the 'grey sky' lock gate poetry, we have 'grey sky art installations' appearing alongside lock edges. Totally out of character with the canals industrial heritage. Such items placed well away from the lock edge but within the vicinity of the lock. It might well have some merit. But its intended to attract people to the lock edge. Now art it seems takes precedence over common sense. Art and poetry have no place on a lock, where it will only act as a momentary distraction from the danger that a deep lock chamber offers. My idea of 'canal art' is steeped in the industrial heritage and the gaily painted boats and the odd barrel and buckby can.

A further 'gray sky' case in question is the proposed fencing of the Marple Aqueduct.  The aqueduct was built to carry the Peak Forest Canal over the River Goyt. The aqueduct was completed in 1799, and opened for business in 1800. The difference in water levels between the river and canal is around ninety feet. The aqueduct is scheduled as an ancient monument and in 1966 was given the distinction of being listed as Grade I. Seven men are recorded as losing their lives during its construction. 

Now 215 years later, the canal and river trust have decided in their wisdom. (which will for many people be something of an oxymoron) As a result of a Health and Safety risk assessment, the ancient monument now requires safety fencing. In its 215 year history, one person is known to have committed suicide by stepping off the aqueduct from the towpath side. Which to be blunt, installing a set of railings on the off side would not have stopped anyway. 

The aqueduct parapet running along side the towpath has a rounded coping stone surface, the parapet on the off side has a flat surface. It seems that people have been known to step onto the aqueduct on the flat surface side from their boat. Now call me old and cynical, but if a rounded parapet wall on the towpath side discourages people from walking along it. Why is a rounded coping stone not installed on the off side. This would be a visually more in keeping with the original heritage structure than railings. There would be no confusion about if its a safe place to step on and off a boat. 

Would the installation of railings provide a hazard of their own. Fitting railings would certainly provide an anchor point for abseiling or the adrenalin junky, bungee jumpers. Should one of the abseiler or bungee jumper have an accident or their is a fatality will this then require a subsequent 'risk assessment' and the railings to be removed.

Installing railings as a real health and safety issue - this has as much worth as putting a safety railing on top of the Stonehenge Monoliths. I am willing to bet there have been more people on top of the Stonehenge Monoliths than have ever been walking on the off side of the Marple Aqueduct.

While we are on to aqueducts. Perhaps David Baldacchino, from the Canal & River Trust, would also like to share with us what plans the trust has for the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, I wonder what plans the trust have in hand for the huge Health and Safety problem that the off side presents at Pontcysyllte.  Will the trust be desecrating yet another bit of our national heritage. The aqueduct was added to the World Heritage List in 2009.

While we are on to Health and Safety. Perhaps David Baldacchino, from the Canal & River Trust, would also like to share with us what plans the trust has if any (other than duck lanes) for mitigating the issue of speeding cyclist. After all there are a regular series of incidents where the high speed cyclists come into conflict with members of the public walking on the towpath. Its been going on for years and has been reported as an issue of concern in various newspapers and periodicals for about a decade. There is evidence in chapter and verse on Strava to support a positive stance is required to this growing issue. Maybe the trust could consider sending a box of sticking plasters to each victim.

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