As my regular readers will no doubt be aware, I'm a scientist and have worked in a number of scientific departments and laboratories over the years. In my current laboratory, I am the designated ‘Health and Safety Officer’. The role is supposed to be one of election (at least according to Vol 2: page 201 of the Health & Safety Manual) and staff members are expected to vote for their preferred candidate. Therefore, the best person for the post is always chosen…..Not so, in our lab. As I recall I turned up one morning to be told by the Boss that he had decided that I was to be honoured with this exalted position; so much for democracy. Frankly, I am ill suited for the role.
Anyway, from what I can see the position involves filling out endless forms or submitting reports that no one reads, to Occupational Health. Every year our staff have to submit a ‘Health and Safety’ questionnaire. The questions remain the same every year and thus the ‘lab rats’ keep a copy and send that in, every year. My job is to ensure that they have changed the date. As you can guess there are elaborate instructions for the filling in of said questionnaire. In the Health & Safety Manual (Vol1: page 347) there is a dire warning of doom, in bold and capitals: IF ANY QUESTION SUBMITTED IS INCORRECT THE FORM WILL BE RETURNED FOR CORRECTION AND RESUBMISSION. Last year we decided to test this most gracious of policy in the spirit of quality control. So instead of a correct answer, every single answer to every question, in every single questionnaire was plausibly incorrect. We waited in trembling horror for the admonishing response. The week after submission I received the expected email, with trepidation: “Thank-you for your 100% compliance. The outstanding quality of your department's responses has been noted and you have been selected and recommended for commendation”. ARSE.
We are exhorted by Occy Health (occy, occy, occy) to report any accidents at work no matter how minor. This gives me a great source of pleasure as I record every paper-cut, minor bump and abrasion. Every month at the senior management meeting my delightful Boss is required to assiduously read out all our lab’s incidents much to the delight of the other management types. I hear tell that my boss has earned the nick name, ‘paper-cut’. The Boss once approached me to ask whether all the minor health and safety infractions need to be so meticulously documented. I, of course, directed him to the relevant passage in the ‘Health and Safety Manual’: Vol 1, under sub-clause 12, page 32; methinks he is regretting his decision to appoint. However, as no other bugger in the department will do this job, he is stuck with me. As I said, I am totally unsuited for the position.
In fact, the only time I was contacted by Occupational Health was when three members of staff were gassed during an ill-advised equipment fumigation with formaldehyde. The staff members were promptly wheeled into casualty, where sadly, they all made a full recovery; I dutifully submitted an incident report. Next day I received an animated phone call from the Head of Occy Health stating that due to the severity of the accident/incident I was required to complete forms, 12A, 13D and 21J. In addition, I had to write a comprehensive report on the incident and obtain full medical reports. Bugger- my paper work backed up for 6 months! These days I only submit the most minor of incidents.
I am well aware of the importance of Health and Safety in a potentially hazardous environment such as a laboratory. There are a lot of nasty chemicals to play with (ricin is cool). Pathological samples are an infection hazard and we have a lot of large machines with moving parts and lasers (some of them go beep). That said, much of the Health and Safety I have to deal with is about documentation and pointless and unending meetings and bureaucracy. I work with science professionals, intelligent folk who exercise prudent caution whilst at work, apart from the re-enactment of the Somme ‘Gas Attack’ of the 22nd July 1916- no one’s perfect, after all.
Many years ago when I began my heady career as a researcher, health and safety was not so stringent. In fact, we didn’t have a ‘Health and Safety Manual’ in three volumes; no health and safety representative and in fact, no formal health and safety over and above good old fashioned common sense. Therefore, we used to drink and smoke in the lab; the meat pies were kept an ambient 37 degrees Celsius next to blood cultures in the incubator and every year the revenue free absolute ethanol ended up in the Christmas punch. The wearing of plastic gloves was a luxury when handling blood products and consequently, during my tenure, two members of staff contracted hepatitis B. I'll never forget when the technician became infected with schistosomes after handling wild African snails. Halcyon days.
The point, I suppose I'm making, is that there is a requirement for a sensible compromise between these two extremes. Clearly, when I began my career, health and safety considerations were woefully inadequate. Now the pendulum has swung so far the other way that we are becoming mired in the minutiae of inane documentation and real 'Health and Safety' has become sidelined. The procedures in our laboratory are so tight, the occasional gassing aside (cough), that there are really no health and safety incidences of any real note. Every year new proclamations and amendments come into effect and are incorporated into the updated Health and Safety Manuals, which no one reads. Bugger, I don't read them and I'm the designated Health & Safety wallah. As I said, I'm not a very good Health and Safety representative. But I am very good at writing reports and telling the Upper Management what they want to hear. Of course, tis all bollocks, but what would they know.
Did I tell you I was not very good at the job? Tis a matter of perspective, I suppose.