An Inspector Calls

During the course of this Bad Science thread I took the initiator to task for trotting out what I called “the tired old canard” about health and safety issues restricting science teaching. While there is no truth to the urban myths about the Health and Safety Executive banning all kinds of things, I sometimes wonder if the bureaucracy and over-interpretation of legislation is contributing to the view that science (and technology for that matter) are too much hassle.

This post has been prompted by reading the report by a consultant who recently blessed our department with his wisdom.

Amongst other things, he suggested that every laboratory should have a first aid kit in it. This has never been suggested as necessary on any first aid course I have attended, nor can I find any legal requirement. All of the qualified first-aiders in the school (including me) have a first aid box in their work-room and take it with them when they are called out.

The real fun, though, was when he checked our procedures for storing radioactive sources. While he concede that ther are in an approved storage cabinet he said that it was “too near” a flammables cabinet. There’s a brick wall between them. However, we are going to have to move it to another store-room and inform the fire brigade that we have done so.

It would appear that we also have to audit them every year. Make sure we still have them, that is. As it is, every time one is taken out, the fact must be recorded, including the date, the time of removal and the time it was returened to the store. I would have thought that this sufficed in ensuring that we do not lose any of them but it would appear not. Somebody must check that they are all where they should be. Now if he thinks we would lie about putting them back, presumably he also thinks we would lie about finding them in place. This implies we should pay for an independant auditor to check. I wonder if he has anyone in mind?

Then there’s the leakage tests. I have been doing such tests and recording the results in the same way ever since the legislation was introduced. My recording method has been approved by two inspectors qualified in radiological protection in that time but apparantly this is no longer good enough. A special form must be used. Apart from arranging the data in a slightly different way to the one I devised, I see no difference but there you go.

We have a jar of granite pieces. We are informed that this must have the trefoil warning symbol on it. I am aware that granite contains traces of uranium and thus is very slightly radioactive but we are talking about the material considered safe enough to be used to make kitchen work surfaces. In Aberdeen they build houses out of it. In New York, Grand Central Station is built out of it.

It seems to me that much of this is unwarranted nit-picking. If this sort of approach to H&S is common one can see why the urban myths are believed. This belief in turn allows bean-counters to get away with using “Health and Safety” as a smokescreen for budget cuts.

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4 Responses to “An Inspector Calls”

  1. tokyonambu Says:

    You are, of course, perfectly entitled to tell the consultant to fuck off. Things are an offence against the H&S legislation when you are convicted of them, and not before. If you are confident that you are compliant with the law, and you are clear from a governance perspective that you are entitled to take that decision, then that’s an end of it. Of course, if it all goes pear-shaped, that you were warned will not count in your favour, but unless you are operating a reckless system the offence is only latent until someone gets hurt, and your contention is that someone _won’t_ get hurt.

    This is how it works in the private sector. Building on 9000 we maintain a 14001 and 18001 registration (H&S and OHS), alongside our 27001 InfoSec, nascent 25999 Business Continuity and the rest of the certifications. We believe, as professionals in the various fields, that our management systems meet both the standards and the relevant legislation. If an auditor argues otherwise, either on standards or law or best practice, we listen carefully, and consider the risk, the potential consequences and the cost of complying with the new requirement. We then do it. Or don’t do it. Usually, don’t do it. “Are you going to yank my certificate, report me to the HSE, or formally inform me there is a realistic risk of a bad thing happening? No? You were just passing a conversational moment? Fine. Let’s get back to some real work.”

    The problem seemingly in the public sector is that (a) auditors and consultants are granted limitless power, because everyone is frightened of them and (b) the processes mean that threatened legal action requires immediate reporting to the legal people, which means that your life is made interesting even if it doesn’t eventuate. Taken together, risk aversion becomes a way of life.

    Many years ago, a safety guy attempted to convince me that four-way distribution boards were a fire risk because they enabled one to pull 13×4 Amps out of a 13A socket. I laughed at him, pointed to the _two_ fuses (one in the plug, one in the board) and walked away. Working for an engineering company I was amused when he went to my then-boss, who laughed at him again and threw him off site as incompetent. You don’t have to listen to them when they’re idiots, and the best thing is to tell them to their faces.

    By and large, H&S, like the DPA, is used by inadequates to justify nonsense. Just laugh at them.

  2. jaycueaitch Says:

    There does seem to be a view by public sector managers that consultants are much more knowledgable than permanent staff. Even though the staff have been appointed on the basis of their skillset.

    TBH I’m going to comply with the nit-picker’s suggestions. Simply because doing so will be less hassle than arguing with the SMT about it. Apart from moving the cabinet. That will require a contractor and thus will cost money. Will it happen? Place your bets now.

    He also suggested that we should have more technicians to cover our work load. I don’t think that’s going to happen but we’ve now got an excuse for overlooking things: “We’re understaffed, see. That expensive consultant you brought in said so!”

  3. Robert Carnegie Says:

    Aberdeen (Scotland) isn’t kept inside a jar that concentrates radioactive decay product, including radon gas (which decays too, the problem is mainly if you breathed it in then it decays). Curiously, Aberdeen, South Dakota, seems to be more concerned about it. I believe modern building regulations include assessing radon emission from underground, and if necessary undersealing the foundations. Granite isn’t always or exclusively a bearer of uranium and radioactivity, but it is there, and isn’t better to remind laboratory workers about hazards that they may become casual about? For every geography teacher who huffs from the granite chip jar as a joke each session, there’s going to be a stone on a cairn some day…

  4. The Perky Skeptic Says:

    My house is built on limestone. I think the worst one gets for sniffing that is allergic rhinitis. 😉

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