Sidmouth Folk Week 2008. Health and Safety - the rule of the box-tickers.

Nothing could more perfectly illustrate the rule of the box tickers than the newly appointed and 'Health and Safety co-ordinater' of Sidmouth Folk Week strutting around with his clipboard and little red book, and resplendent in his personalised yellow fluorescent jacket and bluetooth ear piece. Maybe next year he will get twin matching blue strobe lights for his shoulder pads?

Health and Safety is of course a serious issue - remember Flixborough? That was caused by a simple pipeline design fault. What seems so absurd is the extension of systems of H&S into areas of everyday life where common sense should dominate - whereas in nuclear and chemical plants everything does indeed need to be structured around mathematics, logic and documentation - if only so that blame may be apportioned. Most of the problem at local outdoor events has its origins in local officials - which may help explain the wide divergence of application of H&S issues at various festivals. At Shrewsbury Festival carpets have been used around the dance floors (something never seen elsewhere to my knowledge) just because it was the dotty idea of a junior EHO or similar personage and the organisers probably found it easier to comply with her ideas than to argue.

I loaned the Sidmouth box office a few tea towels, an extension lead, two 13 amp adapters, an electric kettle and a mains electrical lead for their mini-fridge. I checked all the items for electrical continuity, proper earthing, frayed ends etc, before I left home. The kettle is one I use in my caravan and for extra safety the lid is secured with two copper wires - thus ensuring that if the kettle is knocked or pulled over the bulk of its contents will remain safely inside, at least for the few seconds it takes anyone to leap out of the way.

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So it is a very safe kettle - safer than most you could buy over the counter.  My house is perhaps the only one in the UK where the owner has inspected every inch of electrical wiring in the roofspace, produced a full colour circuit diagram of it all and where every cable has been stapled down correctly and every ceiling light fitting fireproofed with plaster - and after having been checked for correct wiring. I also have three separate earth leakage circuit breakers. I could take you into my roof, you could point to any one of maybe 80 cables and I could tell you instantly which circuit it was a part of. High current cables buried in insulation have been uprated. So maybe I qualify as a Health and Safety nut myself!

So what did our festival H&S co-ordinater have to say upon visiting the box office? His gaze fell upon a twin wall socket into which were plugged three appliances - via one of my adapters. "You have three things plugged in there" (Tick box for RISK). I told him that the total loading was maybe 300 watts (290 of which were a computer) whereas the socket would cheerfully cope with 6000 watts (provided it was wired as a ring main and the portakabin current trip didn't operate!). So what was the risk of three appliances in one twin socket, two of which were quite obviously low wattage low voltage adapters for electronic equipment? Precisely zero.

Similar things are to be seen in every house in the UK and cause no problem - except where overloading occurs with three electric fires served by one socket. Next, he wanted to know what a strange box was, sitting beside the computer. I told him it was an UPS (uninterruptable power supply), newly purchased and CE marked (and no doubt many other certification marks also). "It has to be PAT (Portable Appliance Testing) tested". And this despite it was brand new!! This is really like saying that a new car has to have an MoT before it can be driven on the public highway. Maybe it is tempting fate to suggest this?

Next, his gaze fell upon my extension lead serving the kettle and fridge. "You've got a metal extension socket there" I told him it was mine, that I had tested and inspected it that morning and was quite happy with it. "It needs PAT testing - there are local electricians where you can take it". Except of course it wasn't remotely necessary as the portakabin was fitted with a ELCB, I had checked the lead myself and we didn't have the time. He did correctly point out we didn't have a fire extinguisher - as far as I recall we were never given one either. My kettle caused much raising of his accomplished City and Guilds qualified eyebrows - this was indeed something unusual and therefore potentially dangerous! But eventually he left, boxes ticked and numerous scribbled comments for action. We were told that we would have to get all electrical items tested and that he would return in one or two days (was this a threat or a promise?). He missed possibly the most pertinent question - was my electric kettle unplugged or switched off at the mains plug at night? Actually it wasn't - and it should have been.

But at the end of the week, nothing had been tested and labelled, everything was working fine and if there had been any accidents they would probably have been caused by slipping on a wet floor or bumping into each other as we scurried around in a travesty of time and motion. But these matters do not rate tick boxes. As for the floor, yes we did have a mop and yes, we used it regularly! Meanwhile on the campsite and on all the roads around town, real H&S issues such as idiots with faulty handbrakes were either ignored or accorded their own tick boxes. Were the chairs in the Ham properly secured together this year? I didn't once visit the Ham to find out. Maybe next year.

Were large warning signs erected at two metre intervals along the seafront to warn visitors from inland that the sea was variously wet, exceedingly cold and quite deep in places? And were these in sixteen different languages to reflect the multicultural nature of England today? Were all Sidmouth's ferocious seagulls safely caged for the week, lest some moron of a steward on duty (and therefore covered by the H&S at Work Act) offered them a chip and got pecked? After all, the Esplanade is a place of work for some stewards and all risks must be assessed in triplicate.

On a positive note, curiously there seemed to be far less enforcement this year of the absurd rules that in previous years had meant that no-one could stand in a fire exit watching an event. In the Blackmore as elsewhere, most stewards simply kept pushchairs and chairs and rucksacks out of the area but made little attempt to clear people away when it was patently unnecessary to do so. How refreshing. On the other hand, standing in a fire exit can reduce the ventilation of a marquee......

The briefing notes for stewards did contain one example of largely irrelevant advice:

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It is important that fire doors in large multi-compartment buildings are not propped open. In some buildings, fire doors have electromagnetic closers so the doors can be open most of time but close upon a fire alarm sounding. All of this applies to large buildings, not to small church halls or marquees populated by wide awake folkies.

One aspect of the car parking at Bulverton mirrored what is seen at other festivals. The ground was sloping, muddy and wet. Stewards were doing a splendid job in getting cars to park exactly in neat rows. However, to achieve this they first ran in front of the cars guiding drivers to the next parking spot (too few stewards seemed to be on duty to form a chain of signallers) then they stood directly in front of the car waving the driver to come forwards an extra few millimetres. All of this is asking for trouble and in a 'workplace'! Running on mud or wet grass has obvious risks attached - especially with a car following a few metres behind you.

Standing a tiny distance in front of a car driven by an over-tired folkie carries the obvious risk that the car might lurch forwards - either through mechanical or electrical malfunction or human error. Some automatic cars can exhibit 'surges' - these have led to a few garage walls being demolished. The rules are simple enough and apply to horses as well as cars - stand close by the front shoulder (or by the front wing of a car). That way, you might get your ear bitten off but you can't easily be kicked to death (or run over).

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