The safety inspector cometh: Is your kettle a potential workplace hazard? Linda Grant on a new national obsession

Linda Grant
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:54

HE SPOTTED it as soon as he walked in. 'Within the regulations, your chair doesn't comply,' said Tom Stewart, ergonomist with System Concepts Limited, a London firm of consultants on workplace safety. What was wrong with my chair? It had vaguely Le Corbusier lines, I'd bought it at Heal's and I'd seen the same one in countless offices where men in smart suits sat on it.

'This chair is not giving you proper support,' Mr Stewart countered. 'It's fixed, you can't adjust it, it doesn't move, it doesn't tilt, there's no foot rest. You need to sit high enough so your arms can hang down comfortably. It doesn't mean you're breaking the law, but if your employers said you had to use this seat, they wouldn't be complying with the regulations.' The fact was, my chair was ergonomically incorrect. Within a minute he had me perched on two cushions, my feet resting on two phone books. 'That's the way you should be sitting.'

The rest of my office endured Mr Stewart's scrutiny. 'The wiring makes me slightly cringe,' he said. By the desk was a tangle of wires emanating from phone, answering machine, computer and printer. He pointed to an AC adaptor. 'It's lying upside down. You're covering the vents so it could over-heat. And there's the danger of tripping. Do you know how many accidents are caused every year in offices by tripping?' I got off lightly. Though my chair failed, my desk passed, as did my ventilation system (two large windows) and, to my enormous relief, my electric kettle.

HEALTH and safety is threatening to become a national obsession. Even the Health and Safety Executive thinks it has all got out of hand. On 12 February Roderick Allison, its director of safety policy, had to issue a press statement advising employers that there was no need 'to buy in outside expertise to inspect, test and label every single item of electrical equipment - from plugs upwards - and keep an encyclopaedic record of results'. Tell that to the freelance safety inspectors.

On the back of the EC Management of Health and Safety at Work regulations, which came into force on 1 January, an army of consultants is stalking British work premises. The new safety regulations - which cover risks from such hazards as office furniture, faulty kettles, video display terminals' ventilation, lighting and temperature - place duties on employers, including the self- employed who work from home, to protect themselves and their staff. Each manager can now be held personally responsible and prosecuted if an employee has an accident, suffers eye-strain from a VDU or a bad back from a bad chair, and says he or she had not been briefed on the potential risk.

The HSE and the Association of Professional Ergonomic Consultants, of which Tom Stewart is a member, have been monitoring companies that are issuing misleading advertising. For example, one consultant warned readers in a provincial newspaper that they could go to prison if they did not comply with the ruling that 'every employer shall appoint one or more competent persons to assist him in undertaking the measures he needs to take to comply with the requirements'. This implies that an outside consultant should be called in, which the HSE disputes: a 'competent person', it says, could be an employee who has read up on the subject; in the case of a self-employed person, it would be enough if they simply sent away for the HSE's literature. (So a personal home visit from someone like Tom Stewart, though ergonomically enlightening, is not strictly necessary.)

British business is terrorised, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which will make the new legislation the subject for debate at its annual congress later this month. 'There's a vast army of consultants out there, usually ex-factory inspectors, and they're charging between pounds 600 and pounds 700 a day,' says David Walker, ROSPA's senior technical adviser. 'For a small business, during a recession, this is terrible. These people are going round saying you've got to have all your portable electrical appliances like kettles tested every six months and it's costing firms a fortune.'

One large employer, the BBC, in order to comply with the regulations, has recently introduced safety audits. Paper is now regarded as a fire hazard and desks are given a 'safety percentage rating' on their capacity to ignite. According to one producer in the drama department, life at the BBC now consists of advising secretaries that they they may be sitting in ergonomically incorrect positions: 'You have to keep a list on the wall of all hazardous substances, which seems to include most things - such as Tippex, which is apparently lethal, or so they tell you. I have to do a risk assessment of my secretary's work station and record the significant findings. I heard that someone came back from lunch to find his lamp had a big orange notice on it saying FAILED.'

One of the speakers at ROSPA's congress will be Brendan Burns, vice-chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses. 'According to these new regulations, Westminster Abbey can't comply unless you build an asbestos panel down the middle. How many people died in a cathedral last year? Newsagents are supposed to have half-hour-burning fire doors. If you're standing in a newsagent a foot away from the door, are you going to hang around for half-an-hour? The individual is not allowed to have any responsibility for anything they do. If dogs bite people, do we put rubber teeth in them? Why stop there? What about orchestras, with all those dangerous violin bows going up and down?'

It seems we British are beginning to resemble the Americans in our increasing desire to live in a world of guaranteed safety where accidents never happen. Workplace safety is not the only target. Under a different set of regulations, the Royal Navy was forced last December to abandon its centuries-old custom of using a wooden oar to stir the Christmas pudding. Because of a directive from an environmental health officer, the Navy was ordered to use plastic spoons instead, on the grounds that an oar is a health hazard. Last month the author Christopher Booker, who has been conducting a personal campaign against 'excessive regulation', accused environmental health officers of 'running riot, behaving with a petty-minded arrogance which would not be out of place in a totalitarian state.'

The safety frenzy reached new heights in February when the massively popular BBC consumer programme Watchdog exposed a hidden danger lurking in British kitchens. The great Pop-Tart scandal revealed that members of the public had phoned in their dozens to report that after removing a Pop-Tart from their toasters, the hot filling had burst the pastry shell and taken the skin off their hands. Twenty victims were lined up in the studio, held up their wounds to the camera and denounced Kelloggs, who, they alleged, was clearly guilty of foisting a dangerous object on the British public. Where had the product-testing budget gone? Who was to blame? In reply, Kellogg's pointed out patiently that the Pop-Tart packet advises consumers to heat the product on the lowest setting - and that Pop- Tarts have been safely on sale in America for 30 years.

Back in the workplace, Tom Stewart agrees that the lust to discover hazards in the most innocuous objects has got out of control. The safety zealots want to eliminate all risk from human life. Impossible, says Mr Stewart. 'A few years ago, sitting and watching television in Lockerbie was the most dangerous thing you could do in Britain.

'It's easy to poke fun at Tippex being a hazardous substance and miss the important things: it's important to strike a balance. But if you look at a typical picture of an office in a catalogue there are three things missing: paper, wiring and people. Now if you could have an office without them, you would have no accidents.'

(Photograph omitted)

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