February 28, 2012

Yet another death due to excessive concern for ‘elf an’ safety issues

Filed under: Britain, Bureaucracy, Government, Health — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 14:25

Bagehot blogs about the unhealthy results of paying too close attention to the health and safety regulations:

[T]he Mail on Sunday ran an interesting feature this weekend about a different example of what certainly sounded like a health and safety overreaction. It told the tale of a man who drowned in a shallow boating pond in his local park, after suffering an epileptic seizure while feeding swans. A passer-by (a woman who was in charge of a small child so did not dare enter the pond) called the emergency services. But the first firemen to show up announced that they only had Level One training, for ankle-deep water, and needed to wait for a specialist team with Level Two training for chest-deep water. By the time that team arrived, the man had been floating in the pond for 37 minutes. While waiting for that specialist help, the same firemen also strongly urged a policeman not to attempt a rescue in the pond, even refusing to lend the policeman a life-vest. Then the policeman’s control room told him not to enter the water, as the victim had been in the pond so long that it was a body retrieval mission, not a rescue.

The MoS, which sent its reporter out into the same pond equipped with no more than rubber waders, called it a story that “shames Britain”. Certainly its photograph of the eventual retrieval of the poor victim’s body, featuring 25 separate emergency workers, an inflatable tent, several fire engines and a helicopter, is suggestive of an over-reaction after an under-reaction.

It is tempting to conclude that Britain has fallen into a serious problem with regulation, red tape and crippling risk-aversion. Certainly, the newspapers have recently been filled with all manner of depressing stories about pancake races being cancelled, policemen being urged not to pursue criminals onto roof tops, party bunting being outlawed or council workers refusing to mount shoulder-height step ladders to fix broken signs without logistical back-up once reserved for the cleaning of the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

[. . .]

All of which is sensible. You don’t have to be a wild-eyed libertarian to suspect that something has gone wrong with the management of risk in Britain. It is also depressing to see so many advertisements for ambulance-chasing lawyers, urging anyone who has had the smallest accident to sue. Anecdotally, members of parliament grumble about the role played by some insurance companies who hold special advice-sessions on liability for local councils, seeking to terrify them into taking out expensive cover and in the process filling the heads of municipal bosses with all manner of scare stories.

But listening to my rather cautious Jersey host, and reading the MoS report of the pond rescue, I found myself wondering if the British character may not also play a role. Read the report by Lord Young, or even the detail of the admirably comprehensive Mail report, and the rules themselves are sometimes less the problem than their interpretation. It turns out that emergency workers can break all sorts of health and safety rules when lives are at stake, without fear of prosecution, for example. And those guidelines on Level One and Level Two water training were intended for rescuers in fast-moving flood waters, the inquest into the pond case was told.

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