Wednesday November 12, 2008
One of the more dubious pleasures of beginning a new job is that of the inevitable round of Health and Safety inductions. Of course, we all know that these sessions are important – it’s always nice to get home from work in the evening with all your limbs intact – but in my experience, if you get any room of otherwise sensible adults together in front of a Health and Safety training film, it is inevitable that in a few moments you will be able to feel the ripple of naughtiness and petty rebellion pass through the audience. There is something inherently funny about those training videos in which you get to witness bad actors demonstrating how it is possible to turn one’s workplace into a place of misery, pain and death, simply by failing to wipe up their spilled coffee, or by standing on rotating chairs to swat passing wasps, and it is made funnier by the fact that you know that these are, in fact, serious matters.
This concern with Health and Safety – which I am capitalising out of deference to its advocates, who tend to do the same – is by its very nature a strange chimera, constructed in part (and at its best) out of genuine concern for human welfare and in part (and at its worst) out of the fear of litigation. But as I was sitting the other week through an afternoon of horrors the of spilled coffees and rotating-chair supported wasp-swatting, I found myself wondering about the kinds of world-view behind much of our present concern with Health and Safety.
The thing that puzzled me most was this. We were given a ‘quiz’ to start the session (quizzes, in this context, are believed to be fun) consisting of a number of statements which we had to mark ‘true’ or ‘false’. The first two statements were as follows:
- All accidents are the result of human error.
- All accidents are preventable.
Now, I just knew that the required answer for each of these statements was ‘True’. But I simply could not find it in myself to tick that box. So I ticked ‘No’ instead, and I was rewarded by big red crosses (rather than by nice green ticks), because this answer was, in the strange world of Health and Safety thinking, palpably wrong. I would have argued the case, but having in an earlier induction session that morning already been told that one can be too philosophical (too philosophical? And in a university as well – the shame of it!), I decided to let it pass.
The first of these statements may come down to a simple matter of definition. If we define an accident as a misfortune caused by human error, then this is necessarily and by definition true. But if as I head to work later today I am hit by a meteorite and never get up again, then my friends might say “What a tragic accident”, and I don’t think that they could be accused of a misuse of language. Of course it could in this context be seen as human error that I did not wear a hard-hat as I walked down the high-street, but I think that this is stretching the point rather.
But what about the second question, if we simply restrict ourselves to those things where human error is involved: all accidents are preventable? My objection here relates to the tense in which it is expressed. If the claim is that “all accidents in which human error is involved could have been prevented “, then I have no problem with this. But the thing I do have a problem with is the claim that all things could have been prevented can be prevented, because it puts too high a demand upon human knowledge of the unintended consequences of actions. Errancy is a part of human action – the mind takes short-cuts, we cannot wait until all the data is in before we act. As a result, risk – even leaving aside the falling of meteors and thinking only about human error – is ineradicable. This does not mean that we should throw caution to the wind, but it does mean that in thinking about human action and human welfare (as well as in thinking about our legislative frameworks), we should recognise that knowledge after the fact about what should have been done is not the same as knowledge before the fact, and that living in the world means that risk is an inescapable aspect of our lives.
The image illustrating this post, incidentally, is a 12th century picture of the Ladder of Divine Ascent. Your challenge for today is to identify how many different health and safety risks are being taken by those foolish saints. Have fun!
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