Safety: some have gone far too far

Yes, keep the Bunsen burners! Stinks and bangs are good for kids.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the reason I was offered by House of Commons’ officials when the MP for Romford, Essex, Andrew Rosindell asked me as Leader of the Commons why the flag pole atop the new Parliamentary building “Portcullis House” was never used to fly the Union Jack. This is the building opposite Big Ben. It was built with a flag pole as part of its design.

I assumed that the architects had thought about how someone would in practice be able to raise, and lower, a flag from it. So I refused to give this draft answer, and instead told the Commons that I would inspect the pole and its surroundings myself.

“Health ’n’ Safety” was the answer which came back.

I was strongly advised not to make an inspection. It was too dangerous. Too bad, I replied, I was quite capable of looking after myself. As I was going up, a “Health ’n’ Safety” officer thrust a “Risk Assessment” in my hand.

This had lots of coloured columns in it, and looked pretty. A cursory glance told me that this was more about its writers covering their back than any real-world risks.

It transpired when I finally got into the roof space that access to the flagpole was via two heavy bronze doors which could catch the wind, and might just badly injure the man with the flag. “Isn’t the answer”, I asked “to fix a bolt to secure the door open? I’ll get you one for a quid in B&Q if you can’t get one”. Reluctantly this suggestion was accepted. The bolt was put in. The flag went up.

I gave Mr Rosindell the answer he was seeking, rather than have to fob him off with nonsense.

Health and safety is very far from all being nonsense. Many construction sites and factories used to be death traps.

Today, whilst there can still be too many accidents, care over risk to life and limb has made inherently dangerous workplaces much safer. But there is a common-sense balance to be struck.

My concern is that some in the safety business, with lawyers and insurers behind them, have gone far too far – as with the saga of the Commons flagpole, and all kinds of restrictions on children’s activities, including reports of reluctance to allow chemistry experiments with Bunsen burners. This is not about wilfully exposing children to unnecessary danger, but better getting them to understand how to make their own decisions about the risks which we all face anyway. I taught my own children at an early age to scramble up rocks, use axes, and make fires because outdoor activity is great, and because they were then able better to learn about risk.

So it should be with chemistry experiments.

We need more skilled chemists in this country.

We won’t get them unless pupils can themselves experience the wonder of materials changing their state in front of their eyes.

So here’s hoping that the latest intervention by the Royal Society of Chemistry produces a sensible change in schools’ practice.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *