Opinion: Media mockery of health and safety makes me angry

Where would the media be without local authorities? If a story is needed on a slow news day, councils can be relied on to have done something risible or incompetent to supply the want.

Trees chopped down? Planning consent refused/granted when clearly it should/should not have been (delete as appropriate)?

See also: Opinion – trying to be a ‘friend of farming’

About the author

Joy Bowes
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Joy Bowes, a former solicitor, divides her time between Suffolk and her partner’s  223ha Lake District hill farm. It is home to a herd of Galloway cattle. Higher Level Stewardship conservation work has been carried out, with plans for more trees under Countryside Stewardship.
Read more articles by Joy Bowes

Misspelt road markings? Petty rules about the content of bins? All grist to the media mill.

As a former local government officer, I let most of these reports wash over me.

Often they tell only half the story and indicate that the writer doesn’t really understand how councils work. 

What does irritate me, though, is the media’s continual gibing at its favourite Aunt Sally, “Elf ‘n’ Safety”.

It’s a national sport: find something that a public body has done, or not done, for reasons of health and safety, and present it as so utterly ludicrous that no one outside of a local authority or government agency would even think of it. 

There was a recent press article about a council that had lain flat some headstones in a cemetery because it deemed them in danger of toppling over and injuring or even killing someone.

Cue online outrage at the heartless council and its idiotic overreaction to a minuscule risk.

Comments included the predictable “I’ve never heard of anyone being hurt by a headstone”.

That is probably because the article was not news at all. Councils have for years been checking their cemeteries and laying flat any unstable headstones because, very sadly, there had been cases of children killed by them.

The council I worked for took this action well over a decade ago and was roundly pilloried for its trouble.

Mockery also followed the helpful (or so we thought) sign that was put up to warn people that a large horse chestnut tree near a park entrance was dropping its fruit.

Ha ha, said the press, fancy warning people about falling conkers. Guess what they would have said if a baby’s scalp had been sliced open by one of those hard, spiky seed cases.

As a responsible employer, my council gave all employees health and safety training, which included first-hand accounts of horrifying accidents.

All managers completed annual risk assessments, whether their teams were driving refuse lorries or (like me) spent most of their time sitting in an office.

Mental health as well as physical safety had to be considered.

I half-joked that the biggest risk I ran was beating my head on the desk in despair at the latest government diktat.

With this background, it is unsurprising that exposure to farming caused me some consternation.

Moving vehicles. Large animals. Manual handling. The whole place just one big trip hazard.

And that is why the media gibes make me angry. When Elf ‘n’ Safety is held up for ridicule as a manifestation of public-sector fusspottiness, it encourages everyone else to dismiss it as the preserve of overcautious “council jobsworths”.

A couple of years ago the press carried photos of a Christmas tree that was decked with festive lights for only one-third of its height because the council said it lacked the equipment to install them safely any higher.

I wonder if a few local farmers thought they could have done the job properly from a tractor bucket?

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