Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer


Health and Safety gone mad?

"It's health and safety gone mad" is as engrained a sentence in the mind of the British public as "fancy a cuppa". For some baffling reason as a people we have collectively accepted the Health and Safety Executive (HSE aka "Health and Safety") as the scapegoat and excuse for every knee jerk reaction to any form of risk we encounter. Many people don't realise that "Health and Safety" was originally intended for the industrial workplace, factories full of potentially lethal machinery, not to dictate everyday common sense decisions. HSE was set up to ensure that employers could not force workers to take unnecessary risks that would put their lives in danger for the sake of maximising profit while also ensuring systematic failings in safeguarding could be addressed. These days though it appears we apply the "Health and Safety says” hammer to anything that could even remotely cause us more paperwork or difficult questions in the long run.

Of the many occasions of "Health and Safety gone mad" I have witnessed in the past, two more recent ones particularly tickled me. The first incident involved a product defect notice by a climbing equipment manufacturer. The second a procedural change in a climbing wall following an accident.

The manufacturer in question issued a defect notice for a specific type of top anchor system used in climbing walls, whereby a part of the link would corode significantly in HIGH CORROSIVE environments. This means anywhere particularly humid or salty - mainly sea cliffs and in the tropics. The anchor system is very popular in climbing walls throughout the UK though and in one particular wall a senior member of staff reacted to the notification by suggesting "all top anchors have to be quarantined". To put this into context - this renders the roped climbing wall useless for the foreseeable future. This decision would have been a complete knee jerk and thankfully the technical advisor to the wall realised the reaction may be common, advising all their clients that their systems should not be affected. Despite the detailed technical notice coming from the experts on the subject - the manufacturer - the initial reaction was still "remove everything even though it doesn't apply to us". Would you pull every car of a certain model off the UK roads (right steering) just because a manufacturer recalls left steering cars in another country - not even all left steering countries?

In the second instance a near miss incident during a climbing session caused the management and centre Health and Safety officer (not a climber) to enforce all clients “regardless of ability” must be directly supervised during instructed sessions. Direct supervision means the instructor has to physically hold the rope at all times. Previously instructors, who mostly hold NGB qualifications relevant to the sessions delivered, were allowed to make a professional and qualified judgement as to the clients' abilities to belay. To be crystal clear this is a decision by a qualified instructor as to whether a climber is a beginner or not. A beginner is always tailed by an instructor - no matter what. The moment this is no longer the case the instructor has made the conscious decision that the client is not a beginner and indeed an experienced belayer. By enforcing every client, regardless of their ability, to be tailed on the belay the centre management have effectively undermined the qualifications of any qualified instructor, the technical judgement of the technical advisor in regards to the initial policy and removed one of the most powerful and empowering tools at an instructor's disposal - trusting somebody. No professional instructor takes this decision lightly either, especially where children are involved. Schemes such as the National Indoor Climbing Award Scheme (NICAS) have shown that progressive learning and development is an inherently safe and measured tool to enable children to climb and belay without direct supervision. By progressing through the stages of NICAS the children progressively are given more responsibility while ensuring they understand why they are given it and what the consequences of not conforming to the standards are.

The incident in question happened during a NICAS level 4 session with children who would have had extensive training in the basics of climbing at this stage. In brief, the belayer during lowering off let the rope slip, causing a near unhindered ground fall which was only saved by quick reaction from the instructor nearby and the (very bouncy) climber rolling on impact. This accident could have happened to anybody and indeed has happened to many climbers of many levels of experience. Professional climbers and belayers have had similar accidents and yet they viewed them as what they were - isolated accidents. To put the "tailing the rope for everybody" reaction into context - this would be equivalent to the DVLA ordering all drivers who passed their licences in the past 2 years to only be allowed to drive with an instructor in the passenger seat because one driver had an accident. I must stress that to my knowledge the centre management have not consulted with their technical advisor or the NICAS moderators about this decision at the time of writing.

Don't get me wrong though, I'm not anti health and safety. I firmly believe that the HSE have done and are doing a great job sniffing out systematic failings and bringing them to the attention of the powers to be. They are often used as an excuse though and it worries me that we can no longer see accidents as isolated occurrences but are slowly starting to bubble wrap our society from head to toe. I wholeheartedly agree that most accidents are preventable, indeed foreseeable. I also accept that systematic failings have to be addressed, at times even with draconian measures. My main fear is that we are moving further and further away from a society where everybody takes responsibility for their own actions and engages their own brain matter. Instead we rely more and more heavily on pieces of paper drafted up in offices so detached from the actual scenarios they cover, they may as well be the in Narnia. How on earth are children meant to develop common sense, when all we do in this world is write out risk assessments and then apply bubble wrap and blinkers accordingly?

I have been actively instructing for a number of years and in that time have had my fair share of near misses and minor incidents. Indeed I have also dealt with a couple of major ones that happened during my supervision. In all cases I reflected on my own practises and the guidelines I worked to and tried to establish whether the problem was a systematic failing, a human error or simply a freak occurrence. I'm not ashamed to say that on more than one occasion I realised that I had been the problem, on some occasions the management system let me down and others were simply fluke. The key is I went away and reflected on the situation thoroughly, weighing up potential future mitigating factors in terms of their impact and benefit and only once made a direct change to my procedures as a result of that process. All the other occurrences were learning points and experiences that have shaped me into the instructor I am today. An instructor who realises and understands that risk management is not about removing all risk but about managing the benefit and impact of mitigating factors on the baseline activity at hand.

To paraphrase one of my favourite sayings - "If the only remedy you know is a health and safety guideline, then every problem will look like a health and safety problem."

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Categories: Opinion

Tags: Health and Safety, Risk, Procedures, Climbing, Common Sense

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