I recently went down in the woods, and although I didn’t get any big surprises, I got into a bit of trouble. It wasn’t any trouble I could see, or feel, and I didn’t even realize it was trouble until I got the email the next day. There were no dangerous animals. There was barely any dangerous terrain (beyond some slightly muddy bits along a narrow stream). I had not offended the landowner or the locals. I had not caused criminal damage. I had simply been wandering around a rather pleasant old broad-leaved woodland with a sweep-net, looking at insects. The site, an SSSI, and pheasant shooting wood, was delightful, and reminded me greatly of Plashett Wood, a fabulous private estate near Lewes, which I used to visit with my father when I was a boy.
My trouble was that since I was being employed on an environmental survey, and that I was working alone (lone working it’s called in corporate-speak), I was out of regular contact with the office, and this was ringing alarm bells, almost literally. It did not help that the company director responsible for health and safety was somewhere else on the outskirts of the wood, trying to meet me to see what an entomologist gets up to. This, apparently, was not acceptable. One of the problems with working for large companies is that their bureaucracy appears impenetrable, inflexible and unwieldy, from the outside — nowhere more so than in heath and safety. That my temporary isolation in a mobile-unfriendly pocket of Buckinghamshire should be causing anyone consternation never even crossed my mind. Next thing I know is that I am issued with an email ultimatum and a satellite phone heavy enough to bang in nails; I am to telephone in to the office every hour to confirm that I am alive and well, and, if this device cannot get a signal I am forbidden to enter a site.
It’s at this point that I am tempted to scoff. I don’t, but I am sorely tempted. I wonder if I am being cynical when I muse that nowadays safety really means the safety of the company, and its protection from the threat of potential litigation. I wonder what has changed from 10-year-old me pottering about Plashett Wood with my dad, to now. Are there really any dangers to my health and safety from which I need to be protected? Is me wandering about the countryside with an insect net really a danger that someone has to worry about? I doubt it. It’s at this point that I offer my own considered health and safety policy. In the spirit of “less is more” it is simply this:
be aware, be wary, beware.
To continue, in the appropriate bullet point style of the executive health and safety briefing:
- Be aware of your environment, look around, know where you are, what is going on and act sensibly within it.
- Be wary of anything unusual or untoward, use caution and discretion when required.
- Beware of anything obviously dangerous.
At one end of the health-and-safety spectrum, working on a busy construction site, in a treacherous bog or saltmarsh, or at the side of a working railway line, all carry their own special dangers, which need to be addressed. This may mean a buddy system of working in pairs, an accompanying safety marshall, or regularly contacting the office; it might require hard hat and high-vis gear, steel-impregnated footwear, first-aid kit, extra water, emergency rations, or a satellite phone. But at the other end — moseying about in the woods — I now have my own criterion for assessing whether or not to cross into the site, and it harks back, again, to my Dad taking 10-year-old me across the South Downs and through the woods of the Sussex Weald. I imagine that I have my own 10-year-old son with me. So, if this is the sort of place that I am happy to take him for a nature walk, then in I go, mobile phone reception or no.