Charles Nevin: Soon we'll all have to be wearing hard hats

What we need is not less health and safety, but more, applied in a benevolent but determined fashion

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Certain words and phrases, you will have noticed, become shortcuts to a shared understanding, provoking a grin, grimace, sigh or nod of a predominantly rueful kind and requiring no further comment. I'm thinking of "Brussels", "Government target", "US policy", "The big supermarkets", "loveable", "madcap", and "Charles Clarke". Most of all, though, I'm thinking of "Health and Safety".

What a lot of it there is about! In the past few days alone, we have had a report on gravestones being laid flat, yew trees being removed from near a playground on grounds of poison risk, and the possibility of baths everywhere being fitted with thermostatic mixing valves to prevent scalding. Another three cases to add to our easy familiarity with the dangers from hanging baskets, falling chestnuts and the impossibility of conducting a tombola without insuring heavily against the plastic drum flying off and going Dambusters in a confined village hall.

We also have an easy familiarity with the arguments on both sides, society's duty to protect citizens, especially the most vulnerable, to the best of its ability, ranged against the more robust, traditional view that as life is short and deadly, the best we can do is just get on with it while avoiding the more obvious means of making it any shorter and deadlier.

But there is, as far as I can see, very little attempt to move beyond this debate and encourage more positive ways of looking at the health and safety movement. Perhaps I can help. Many people, for example, sneered at the bath heat regulation proposal, but I was rather taken with the interim advice to put cold water into the bath first, as this is something I have never done, as a result, I now see, of confusing it with the faux pas of putting milk in before the tea.

It clearly makes sense, and the change in my routine has been most stimulating, mentally. Lying safely in my bath, too, I have been able to ponder on the striking health and safety symbolism of overturned gravestones, and move beyond the other advantages of yew removal (no danger of druids turning up, for example) to wider wondering about what happened to those warnings, which I remember from my childhood, about the danger of swallowed chewing gum wrapping itself around the heart.

Churchill, Einstein, and, of course, Archimedes, all did their best thinking in the bath. And, with them, modestly, in spirit and suds, I began to realise that what we need is not less health and safety, but more, applied in the imaginative, benevolent but determined fashion that we have come to expect from the current administration.

Take the environment; what is up there among the top agents of climate change? The airplane. Just ask the Prince of Wales. And how popular would air travel be, do you suppose, if we all had to wear helmets and parachutes and were offered a couple of distress flares at the door? Exactly. Another thing: the RAF believe it's safer for passengers to fly sitting backwards. How would that go down if generally applied? It gave me quite a shock, let me tell you, but then I didn't know, so I thought we were reversing up the Brize Norton runway at 200 mph, and when we took off, well. I've certainly not been responsible for that much emission since.

Sport is another area which could benefit. There have been several events recently when intervention on strict health and safety grounds would have been more than justified; one thinks of England against France in Paris and anything involving Sunderland. And that's just the spectators. Snooker and darts would gain real edge from hard hats, and I've always found archery that much more challenging if you use the arrows with the little rubber cups.

Actually, it's pretty clear that hard hats will be compulsory everywhere before long, both outside and inside. But, again, let's think opportunity, logos, club colours, sponsorship, designer. They could take over from charity wristbands, the youngsters could wear them back to front, and the House of Lords might well force an amendment allowing momentary removal when a gentleman encounters a lady.

On a purely personal note, I will welcome the abolition of D.I.Y, not just because of the silence that will fall on Sundays normally punctuated by the scream of the drill and the shrill cries of electrocuted hobbyists plummeting from ladders, or because of the boost it will give to genuine tradesmen, but because I am hopelessly cack-handed at it. A fortiori a ruthlessly enforced ban on flatpack construction.

My lack of dexterity is literal - I am left-handed - and brings me on to a possibly controversial point. Research shows that we left-handers are creative types - both Churchill and Einstein, as it happens, were left-handers as well as keen bathers (no information on Archimedes, although I can add Michelango and Leonardo) - but possess poorer spatial skills and are therefore more vulnerable to accidents.

It would clearly be much safer, then, if we carried some identification so that the rest of you could give us, and, in particular, Dave Cameron on that bicycle, a wider berth. I'm thinking of a black hard hat with a left thumb pointing down logo, something like that. But now my bath water is getting cold, and I'm definitely not going to go for the old big-toe-hot-tap gambit now, so I'll have to stop and get out, if you would be kind enough to move on, carefully.

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