Archive | February, 2011

Mind the gap

28 Feb

Taking a gap year is a very popular and trendy thing to do these days. They call it a year but it can be any significant amount of time – a month, six months, two years – overseas.

Having done this myself, I can confirm without a shadow of a doubt it was the best experience of my life so far. I spent my gap year, which was in fact a year, predominantly in New Zealand, where I worked for a while, but also travelled to Australia and Fiji during that time too.

I took my gap year once I graduated from university and, knowing myself quite well, I thought this would be the best option for me. Some people choose to do their gap experience between college and university but I doubted myself that I’d have the motivation to go back into education after a year overseas. Others choose to go having been at work for a few years, but I thought the luxury of a regular monthly wage would be too tempting to give up for a year.

Having been in education since the age of five, I felt I needed a break before entering the scary grown-up world of full-time employment.

For me, the best thing about my trip was enjoying my new found independence, meeting new people and challenging myself. As someone who is petrified of heights, jumping off a 43-metre high bridge is something I never thought I’d do and something I’d definitely call a challenge.    

Spreading the message overseas

I digress somewhat, but the reason for my reminiscing is that my experience was brought to the front of my mind last week when I met a group of students all eagerly waiting in anticipation to go on their gap experiences this summer.

In order to prepare students for their gap placements, the British Safety Council is holding a number of training days to raise awareness of health and safety and help them look after their own safety and welfare while overseas.

As part of the training day, the students complete the British Safety Council’s level 1 award in health and safety at work, which will equip them with the knowledge and understanding of important health and safety issues, including a discussion of the hazards and risks they may encounter while on their placements.

Now in its second year, the British Safety Council’s programme has trained more than 100 gap year students, and many of them have gone on to teach basic health and safety to children in developing countries.

The group of 22 students I met were all excited, if a little apprehensive about their forthcoming trips to countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Ghana, with many of them going to teach children in schools. Having now gained a nationally recognised qualification, they feel more confident about their imminent adventures to new territories.

Emily Funnell is a 25-year-old Drama student who is going to Sri Lanka for a month in July. She would eventually like to become a teacher and will be assisting in a classroom during her trip. She says of the level 1 award: “Having this qualification will help me to think more about the health and safety side of things while I’m in Sri Lanka. I’d also like to pass on some basic knowledge to the children too in order to help them eliminate some of the hazards in their own lives. I think it will be quite beneficial.”

I never had the opportunity to undertake any training before my gap year, but whether it’s a year working in New Zealand or a month teaching in Sri Lanka, these are huge life experiences and the British Safety Council’s training days are a great way to prepare students for such an experience.

Speaking to Emily made me feel quite jealous of her pending adventure and reminded me of mine. Although I’d love to take another gap year, I have now officially entered the scary grown-up world of full-time employment and have to spend my money on rent and supermarket shopping rather than sky dives and white water rafting.

I’ll just have to settle for digging out my photo albums and reminiscing over a nice chilled glass of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc!

Monday morning safety retro

28 Feb

A little video treat for all you health and safety bods showing health and safety in a very different era…

Football crazy?

25 Feb

I don’t usually take much notice of the Daily Mail, but an article on their website caught my eye. It was entitled: ‘Elf and safety brigade slaps ban on footballs in the PLAYGROUND… because they’re too dangerous.

The article outlined the details of the matter, stating that only sponge balls were now allowed at the school in Huyton, Liverpool (ironically the same primary school that Steven Gerrard attended), before ‘subtly’ putting its point across that this is an absolutely preposterous idea.

Actually, I find myself inclined to agree with them.

Can you imagine if this rule had been in place when Steven Gerrard was there? The first time he’d have been hit with a leather ball after leaving school, he probably would have burst into tears and never touched a football again in his life!

At the British Safety Council, we have been campaigning for proportionate risk. It’s not about wrapping our kids up in cotton wool; it’s about allowing them to learn about risks for themselves. How will they learn what they do and don’t like if they never get the opportunity to experience such things?

Another argument the Mail put forward was that football is a great way to help reduce obesity in children, which again, I find myself agreeing with. There has been so much publicity around the fact that we have one of the highest obesity rates in the world, surely it’s a good thing that children are getting out and playing football?

The school’s defence case was that the playground accommodates children aged between four and 11 and they have a duty to protect children of all ages.

This is fair enough because the older children may be more aggressive in their ball kicking skills, but surely there are ways around this issue without having to ban leather balls altogether? How about segregated areas for different age groups?

I’m not a professional footballer by any means, but I can imagine the difference in kicking a sponge ball and a leather ball – just lightly kicking a sponge ball would see it fly off over the wall and into the neighbour’s backyard.

And even with this new ‘sponge balls only’ rule, what’s to stop a child falling over on the concrete and cutting their knee? What’s next, sponge flooring as well?

At risk of sounding like an old man, I used to play football with a leather ball in the playground at school and it never did me any harm.

The long and winding road to safer public transport

24 Feb

I once took a bus from Malawi to Tanzania. According to the timetable it was supposed to take eight hours. We arrived in 22. I always talk about this journey as the worst  of my life.

It started in a place called Mzuzu and we were picked up around 1am. Already tired from waiting for 6 hours for the bus to arrive, when it finally came into the station, it didn’t look like it would make another mile with all that it already had on board. Some passengers did get off, but more were getting on. Our backpacks were added to the overflowing pile on the roof. If they made it, it would be a miracle. Getting on the bus, I realised that if we made it, it would be a miracle. I spent the first 7 hours of the journey sat in the aisle in between my boyfriend’s legs, crouched up into a little ball. I didn’t think I would ever feel my legs again, nor would they ever go straight. The border was a welcome break and also meant that after immigration duties, we got a seat. The seat was so tight, you couldn’t put your legs out straight. And having a seat brought other dangers. We could see at out of the window. While on one hand, this was a good thing; passing Africa shrub, elephants wandering their home land, on the other, it was terrifying. The driver had been on the road for over 24 hours and was obviously keen to get home. How he stayed awake, if he stayed awake, I have no idea. Our careering turns on dusty mountain roads (I swear we went on two wheels more than once); being jammed in like sardines; windows that didn’t open; and that overwhelming feeling that we are never going to arrive. The joy of public transport.

When you're not in any hurry...

But that’s Africa. Right?

One commuter I know takes a bus to the train station. This can take anywhere between 10 and 20 minutes. She then gets on a train for an hour: if the bus has made it in time and if the train hasn’t left the station early. The train is packed. Only the privileged few have enough space to open their newspapers. Then there is another bus, less crowded, but a lot slower. She is in the city now. If she makes it into the office in less than 2 hours, it’s a good start to the day.

Another commuter gets on his bike. He’s bought it through the Cycle to Work scheme and it’s a gem. He’s got his helmet and as far as he can, he sticks to the bike lanes. It’s a helpful wake-up in the morning. At a junction a HGV is alongside him and about to turn left. Luckily, the bike’s brakes work and he goes up onto the curb as the HGV turns its corner. “Don’t think he saw you,” says a man walking his dog.

A different commuter stands on the platform. One train has passed by, full to brimming. It reminds him of his trip to India with people sitting on the roof. The second comes into the station and he squeezes on. The doors shut and they move on. Thirty seconds later, the train stops. Signal failure, leaves on the line, train breakdown. Who knows? Same old, same old.

Dangerous professional drivers, faulty vehicles, defective trains, overcrowding. These are not ‘third world’ issues: they are part of the daily lives and journeys of many of Britain’s workers.

In the March issue of Safety Management, Keith Whitehead writes about the benefits a green transport plan can have on businesses in terms of its health, safety, economic and environmental value. But what good will they be if workers are made to suffer delayed, unsafe and uneconomical public transport.

With many of the risks employers and employees have to deal with on a  daily basis, hitting the road to get there or home should not have to be one of them.

Safety Management in court for corporate manslaughter case

18 Feb

I was at Winchester Crown Court yesterday to hear the sentencing of Cotswold Geotechnic Holdings, the first company to be convicted of the new offence of corporate manslaughter. In 2008 27-year-old Alex Wright was killed when a trench collapsed on a development site in Stroud, Gloucestershire.

There was a sense of anticipation in the courtroom about hearing how the judge would set the level of the fine, as the case was the first of its kind. It became clear that it would be a difficult decision as Geotechnic was in a parlous financial situation and it was likely that any large fine would put the company, which employs four people, out of business.

However, the evidence showed that the company had ignored well-recognised industry guidance against working in unsupported pits more than 1.2 metres deep. The judge said that company director Peter Eaton “had thought that the rule was glib nonsense” and “that assumption was tragically and culpably misplaced”.

Summing up the case Mr Justice Field said: “Alex Wright was a young man of talent with a promising career”. He imposed a a fine of £385,000 to be paid over ten years, and said: “The impact of the fine on a company cannot be the determining factor as to the level. The fine must be fixed at a level which reflects the gravity of the offence, and sends out a clear message both generally and to those in the contraction and excavation businesses.

“The Sentencing Guidance Council says that generally fines for corporate manslaughter should be no less than £500,000, however there are individual circumstances and factors… It may well be that thus fine put the company into liquidation, which is unfortunate but inevitable.”

The judge did not order any payment of costs, which he would have done for companies operating at a larger size.

Outside the court, Alex’s Dad told me a bit about the son they lost: “He was just starting his life,” he said. “He’d just got to the end of his university career, had just got settled into one or two jobs doing what he wanted to do and the doors were starting to open for him. He’d reached the stage in his life when he was the most relaxed and happy and had found his partner Marlene, and it was looking very promising. Everything was just coming together for him and then this happened.”

Alex’s mother Shelley then read a statement:

Building Schools for the Future ruling offers little comfort

14 Feb

Asbestos - a potential risk of cutting the Building Schools for Future programme

“The recent High Court ruling concerning the government’s decision to end the Building Schools for the Future programme offers little if anything to those schools, teachers, parents and pupils looking for a glint of hope that the legacy of crumbling and decaying schools will be tackled imminently.  The ruling addresses the procedural errors made by the government and the resulting action it needs to take, not the substantive decision to axe the programme which is unaffected by the decision.

The British Safety Council has made clear its concerns about the danger that dilapidated schools pose for the health, safety and welfare of teachers and pupils.  This is compounded by the fact that we still lack a comprehensive picture of the extent to which asbestos is present in our schools and the risk that building deterioration could lead to exposure of asbestos and consequent disease. The hazards posed by deteriorating schools can only be properly understood if we have an accurate picture of the risk involved in doing little or nothing.”

Neal Stone, director of policy and research at the British Safety Council

When giving blood makes you a fire hazard

11 Feb

Zoe Hallam, Trailblazer at Muscular Dystrophy Campaign

We have a guest blogger today. Muscular Dystrophy Campaign Trailblazer, Zoe Hallam blogs about how health and safety is being used as an excuse to stop disabled people like her giving blood.  Read her honest account about being a fire hazard.

‘Do something amazing.  Give blood.  It’s a motif we’re all familiar with, and I’m constantly being inundated with appeals and adverts from the NHS operating blood drives in my area.  So when my parents informed me they were going to give blood in the run-up to Christmas, I decided to go as well.  My blood might not be particularly rare, but every little helps, and it’s the season for giving and all that.

Obviously I wanted to confirm that it wouldn’t be a wasted journey – while MD isn’t contagious through blood, you never know with the NHS what kind of problems might arise.  I went through their online checks in which they ask you a million questions about your sexual history and general health (never fear readers, both of those are fine for me).  I got to the question of whether I’d had any tests or hospital visits, which of course I have, and that’s where the questions stopped and I was advised to call them to further discuss my medical history.  I duly did so only to find that their medical database was down and the man on the other end of the phone couldn’t advise me.  Irregardless, I figured that a couple of blood tests and MRIs probably weren’t going to affect my suitability to give blood and headed out through the somewhat treacherous snowy conditions to my local town hall for the blood drive.

The man on the registration desk took one look at me in my wheelchair and immediately summoned the Staff Nurse over.  She asked me what my disability was.  My answer earned a “Hmm, that’s almost certainly a no.”  I explained to her that my condition didn’t affect my heart or circulatory system at all, and my blood was perfectly healthy, but she still refused.  The reason, I later found out, was not anything to do with the nature of my condition.  No, in fact I wasn’t allowed to give blood because, as a wheelchair user, I am a “fire hazard”.

Struggling to see the logic behind this?  Me too.  From what I can make out, because I’m unable to transfer from my wheelchair onto the (admittedly rather high) official NHS blood-giving bed without assistance, in the event of a fire I would be unable to evacuate myself.  Never mind that both my parents and my brother were there with me, all of whom regularly assist me with transferring from one thing to another – in the event of a fire they would of course flee the building and leave me on the bed to burn, as would, doubtless, the fifteen or so medical professionals who were hanging around the town hall.  Even if I brought with me my carer who I personally employ and who would be with me for the sole purpose of transferring me on and off the bed, I would still pose too much of a fire hazard for them to allow me to give blood.  Nor am I allowed to remain in my wheelchair to do so, despite its capacity to tilt back to the same angle as the beds they use.

There was nothing on the site which had indicated to me that mobility difficulties would be a prohibiting factor in this, and fair to say the whole incident was pretty upsetting, not to mention offensive.  I’m an active member of the community, and I can’t contribute to a lot of activities in the same way that my able-bodied peers can, but I want to be involved as much as I can.  I’d thought that giving blood would be something anyone can do, regardless of how well their legs work, but apparently this isn’t the case.  I don’t even need to point out that the NHS have absolutely no problem taking blood from me when they want to run yet another test on it…

Honestly, it’s no wonder people think disabled people are a drain on society when even those of us who go out of their way to contribute are prevented from doing so by ridiculous and discriminatory blanket policies.’

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Pause for thought

10 Feb

These are exciting and busy times at the British Safety Council, and especially our department. Our Think Tank has been launched; there are consultations with members going on; international stories and case studies; recommendations post Common Sense, Common Safety to be discussed; campaigns to be launched; interviews, projects, stories… the list goes on. We are busy, but we are best when we are.

Something about the world of health and safety which has struck me recently, is that, while there are signficant priorities and currently fashionable topics, there is so much more happening which would  be great to be able to cover in more depth. But we only have so many fingers and there are many, many pies. We have a strong sense of purpose here, with sector focuses and targeted campaigns. And it is right to use our expertise and resources wisely.

But every day, new stories and research highlight just how far-reaching occupational health, safety and environmental management go. I recently heard about some interesting research the British Occupational Health Research Foundation were doing related to older women workers and their experience of the menopause. The findings will be made available to the public 1 March, but this was something that grabbed my attention.

As a woman yet to go through the menopause (though one who has watched the sufferings of her mother from the sidelines) I really wasn’t fully aware of how it could affect us in terms of our health at work and how the work environment could help or hinder it. The BOHRF are hoping to use their findings to give evidence based recommendations to inform policy, best practice and a working environment conducive to the health and productivity of women working through the menopause. Highlighting this and providing guidance for employers, and consequently support for their employees, will help keep women in work longer, thus reducing staff turnover and the detrimental effects on women’s health, motivation and performance.

We cannot predict the health effects of our body’s natural path, just as we cannot predict what lies in store for us around any corner we choose to turn. What is encouraging, however, is that there are people and organisations who are ready to investigate, talk and give support around such issues as the menopause. And for women, as we increasingly work into our sixties and beyond, or even take up new types of work into older age, this is more than encouraging. In a world where gender and age issues in the work place continue to reflect badly out of the media, steps to address issues important to the lives of working women should be applauded and accepted.

Only through better understanding of issues such as the effect of the menopause on working women will they and their employers continue to benefit from the experience and richness women bring to the workplace.

The report can be found at from 1 March.

Love the job you do

8 Feb

My boyfriend recently became a first aider at his work, following a three-day first aid course with the British Red Cross.

His interest in wanting to become a first aider stemmed from an accident he suffered while running for the bus on his way to work last year. He cut his knee quite badly but didn’t have the necessary equipment to tend to it there and then.

When he eventually hobbled into work, blood pouring from his knee, the female receptionist, who was a first aider, squealed at the sight. Not wanting to take his trousers off in front of her, it became apparent there wasn’t a qualified male first aider in the office to tend to his wound and he ended up doing it himself.

What shocked me most about his story was that there were qualified first aiders who were scared to deal with injuries because they didn’t like the sight of blood. Surely this has to be a prerequisite to becoming a first aider?

I use this example to make the point that no matter what job you do, you should enjoy it and want to do the very best you can at it. I’ve always loved writing and, although my work is unlikely to save a life, I get immense satisfaction from finishing an article I’ve put my heart and soul into.

My motto in life has always been to love the job you do. You spend half your life working so why dread getting up every day to do a job you hate?   

I’ve revelled in the enthusiasm my boyfriend has shown since gaining his qualification. Granted, it was only last week, but it’s refreshing to see someone so passionate about wanting to help others.

Watching Dancing on Ice, I nod resolutely when someone falls over on the ice and he says: “If only I had been there, I could have given them first aid.” I’m sure the novelty will wear off, but it’s nice to know I’m in the safe hands of someone who would want to, and is able to save my life.

OSHC Register – Neal Stone reports

7 Feb

Good news that over 1,200 people have applied to join the Occupational Safety & Health Consultants Register in the week following the launch.  This is proof that consultants attach great importance to the goal of ensuring that practitioners have the necessary competence, expertise and qualifications and are committed to adhering to the very highest standards of conduct.  These are early days and the proof of the worth of the OSHCR will only become evident following the register going live on 4 April.

Organisations who use the services of health and safety consultants will be faced with a stark choice in the coming weeks and months and that is whether or not to use a registered consultant.  The British Safety Council’s advice to its member organisations in the UK will be simple – make sure that the consultant you use has the necessary competence, expertise and qualifications to help you manage health and safety effectively.  The OSCHR should assist you in meeting that goal. Weigh up too the possible consequences of going down the non-register route.

Neal Stone, director of policy and research at the British safety Council

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