Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer

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Paperwork Hell

Many people blame Health and Safety for the increasing paperwork we encounter in pretty much everything we do these days. Where our parents' generation simply applied varying degrees of common sense when stepping onto a ladder we now seemingly have to adhere to working at height regulations and be ladder trained. Signs are put out warning us of a wet floor when just got wet outside ourselves and I have personally come across the words "may contain traces of nuts" on a packet of peanuts. While there is some merit in this last example - technicalities - it is still ridiculous to many degrees. Whatever happened to common sense and the ability to take charge of our own wellbeing without somebody constantly telling us that "Health and Safety told us to [insert random rubbish here]". In fact if you ever fancy ready what the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) actually publish, their mythbuster is a rather amusing coffee break read.

The outdoor industry is no stranger to the blanket Health and Safety excuse. Ever since I came to the UK the amount of paperwork involved in the outdoor pursuits has fascinated me. Every climbing centre requires a separate registration form including a signed statement risk acceptance, a multiple choice style question section with the obligatory "catch you out" item and the various disclaimers and medical info. If you only ever go to a new centre once in a blue moon you will probably not really mind too much, but once you have been to a fair few centres and needed to fill in the exact same template form over and over again you will find the process tedious to say the least. In fact, once you have stopped reading the questions in the multiple choice section, but instead just skim for the buzzword designed to "catch you out" - just look for "extra training" - you know you have well and truly passed the entrance to paperwork hell.

It wasn't until I had to think about the paperwork side from scratch when setting up my own company that I started to really think about why we need it. Ask most people and the answer is likely to be similar to "Oh it's just Health and Safety gone mad" or any of its derivatives. Depressingly, the actual reason largely lies in the no-win-no-fee (NWNF) claims culture that has steadily crept into our society. Today, anybody having any type of accident can pick up the phone and almost instantly submit a claim without having to worry for a second about whether it is worth doing so or not. In a sense, being involved in an incident today is like being handed a free lottery ticket. If you are "lucky" a NWNF lawyer will pick up your case and fight your corner at no initial cost to you. If you win, part of your "earnings" go to the lawyer and you get the rest - a win for you in any case. Now, imagine for a second the look on a NWNF lawyer when in response to a claim submitted against an outdoor provider by a client after an incident, the business is able to produce a mountain of relevant and technical paperwork. Unless the claim is valid and reasonable from the outset, chances are the stack of paper is far too much to sift through for a marginal claim in order to establish whether the claim will have a chance or not. In this situation the piece of paper you signed stating you understand the risks and have provided the provider with all the relevant information including your pre-existing conditions only adds to the mountain. Behind the scenes the operating procedures, risk assessments, qualifications, continuous professional development records, equipment logs and many other documents have been collected and carefully collated - ready to be deployed should a claim ever be made.

Previously I had thought about the possibility of creating a shared system for climbing walls. The idea was to allow participating walls to join together and pass on safety test and registration information between each other. This sounded like a great idea on paper - only register once, pass your safety test and you're good to go in a number of centres. But which centre would be at "fault" if something goes wrong? The one taking the registration? The one where something happened? Another centre because they didn't spot a minor mistake you made? Needless to say the possible problems in terms of the liabilities easily outweigh the benefits of such a system on a bigger scale. While I would love such a system to one day exist and people to start taking responsibility for their own accidents and mistakes without trying to blame others, I fear that only a shift in culture would allow such a modernisation to go ahead.

It saddens me deeply that as an instructor I can no longer assume my client has eyes and is able to look in front of them and identify a stretch of path as undulating as opposed to a tarmac surface. It frustrates me that I have to warn people about sharp drops on the edge of a cliff or the potential for falling rocks if stood below. It angers me that the concept of frozen water being rather slippery doesn't seem to be common knowledge anymore or that I have to tell people that not wearing a waterproof jacket in an autumn storm is probably not going to end well. But I appreciate that I don't have to overcome these things because of Health and Safety, but rather I have to take them into consideration because my own risk assessment tells me to. This risk assessment has nothing to do with Health and Safety - it is purely designed to ensure I can prove I have thought about things should I ever have to defend my practices or actions. Hopefully it will never come to that. On that note I need to update my risk assessment - I wonder if anybody ever risk assessed the risks involved in writing up a risk assessment or just getting the paper or changing the printer cartridge or using the stapler or hole punch or ... better make a start, this may be a longer one ...

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Categories: Opinion

Tags: Risk, Outdoors, Outdoor Industry, Health and Safety, Good Practice

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