by Diana White


As words, health and safety evoke confidence, health is something we all crave and most of us value safety, but put the two words together and confidence is the last thing they evoke as I shall now illustrate.


As the days of turkey and mince pies loom, it is the custom for communities to gear themselves up for the big event with street decorations. Council trucks emerge laden with moth-eaten Father Christmases, reindeer and complicated strings of fairy lights to decorate the shopping centres and entice the public into boundless extravagance. Except this year, due to new health and safety guidelines, not everywhere will be enticing. Apparently, men on ladders fixing fairy lights and reindeer across roads from one shop to another is dangerous, despite years of accident free experience; ladders are lethal and electricity is dodgy. Even firemen, those arch exponents of ladder manipulation, are not allowed to remove bunting in one town until they have undertaken a council risk assessment. As a result, many a town centre will now be a reindeer no-go area as councils cannot afford the expensive equipment and fixings required.

However, much as one deplores this nonsense, health and safety really rouses the wrath when it comes to children. In recent years childhood fun has been threatened with the banning of: 1. conkers, (one city planned cutting down several horse chestnut trees in case a child was injured by descending conkers!) 2. bonfires on November 5th, (fire is perilous,) 3. no hand held sparklers (highly dangerous,) 4. certain toys deemed unsafe (small parts can be swallowed!). Plus, school playgrounds require notices demanding children have written consent before using them; school trips have been curtailed due to one-off tragedies; walking or cycling to and from school is almost extinct because of traffic, and participating in school games needs more written permission and protective clothing. The average parent is a mass of neuroses that in practical terms means their children lead sedentary lives; sitting in front of the TV or computer screen is a safer option than unsupervised outdoor activity. Which brings me to the other buzz word filling the papers and providing untold opportunities for exposure television programmes. Obesity.

According to the experts by 2050 large quantities of the British population will be clinically obese. We will all be so fat seating arrangements on public transport will have to be altered to accommodate us; fatties on one side, thinnies on the other! I can see that idea going down like a lead balloon in some quarters. The biggest problem of all, though, will be health; the fatter we are, the more serious illness we will fall prey to and the fact that children are now obese means a future population of seriously sick adults. Two years ago, a worried government began a weighing programme for primary pupils, recording their weight at five and ten; there are now plans to implement the purpose of the weighing by  warning parents if their child is fatter than guidelines recommend. How much thought has been given to genetic inheritance remains unclear.

 Warning parents a child is overweight is, of course, useless until it is recognised that poverty is a key factor in the eating habits of families whose main concern is filling up empty stomachs with food that will satisfy, generally fatty. There will be little progress in healthy lifestyle programmes until the government factors in money for food for families on state benefits. As for health care, the yawning divide between private health care and the national health service will become a chasm that only those with expensive insurance policies and the rich will bridge, leaving everyone else at the mercy of state provision that will crumble under the increased demand. Health and safety gurus, of course, will be in a state of manic activity. On the one hand they will have to encourage people to get slimmer with sensible eating and more exercise etc., on the other, they will have to cater for the population’s obesity with all manner of new safety guidelines. As well as height restrictions on fun fare rides, for example, there will be also be waist restrictions; this too will affect children as they tend to be the ones most in favour of these scary rides.

Fifty years ago, obesity was virtually unknown as lives were more physical and health and safety mania didn’t exist. Mowing the lawn was hard work and labour saving machinery a luxury for the average householder. Children walked or bicycled to school on roads that were quieter with cars that were slower; indeed, fewer people owned cars; children also played in the street and the park, and school games didn’t consider possible injury. Trees were a natural climbing frame, with or without conkers, and walls were for jumping off. Fathers played football with their kids and mothers provided food that hadn’t been intensively farmed and sprayed to prolong supermarket shelf life, so was more nutritious; and we didn’t graze like cows; we had three meals a day sitting around a table.

Life has changed dramatically since then and we cannot put back the clock, so what is the solution? making school games compulsory every afternoon and gymnastics twice a week, with ropes to climb and boxes to leap over instead of exercises that involve standing on one leg for as long as you can! (yes, seriously.) Organized chaperoned walking groups to and from school (saving school- run traffic jams), and stripping stupidity from health and safety rules would be a start.

Then, volunteers taking hot meals to the elderly housebound who arrive five minutes late at their destination due to traffic congestion, wouldn’t have to throw the food away, as current health and safety rules demand, leaving the vulnerable recipient without a hot meal until the following day; just another example, like the Christmas lights and firemen nonsense, of bureaucracy gone mad. Health and Safety? I don’t think so.


In: kulturissimo 62, November 2007