Health and Safety.
Who’d ever have thought that those three little words – so caring and friendly – could strike such terror into the heart of someone who wants to Get Stuff Done?
But at the start of the twenty-first century, that’s just what they have to do. Behind every cashpoint, ripped out of Sainsbury’s supermarket wall and dumped in your local river, there’s an ambulance-chasing lawyer, pen poised over paying-in slip, just waiting for you to drop it on someone’s toe and pay for his next town-house property in Islington.
And behind every dam of urban crap, mysteriously unmoved for months although it’s threatening to turn the surrounding area into another Lynmouth or Boscastle next time a spate comes down, there’s at least one well-meaning operative from either the council or the EA’s Flood Defence division – who’ll sympathise politely that the dam of crap is there, but won’t be able to lift a lorry tyre, much less a finger or a gas canister, to do a thing about it.
“Healf an’ safety, guv. I’m not allowed to touch it, see?” And maybe that’s even fair, because if he drops the tiniest bit of rubbish on his toe, he’ll catch hell from his own employers for breaching the regulations they’ve carefully designed to stop that lawyer and his cronies getting even richer out of taxes paid by you and me.
(Let’s not even suspect for a moment that our hypothetical operative might not want to get out of his nice warm truck and actually do an honest day’s taxpayer-funded work in a nasty wet river in the rain… shall we?)
But we’re urban commandos. So we’re different. All that Health and Safety stuff doesn’t have to apply to us.
Errm… does it?
Sorry to break it to you like this, my friends, but it does. And you’ll know that I speak from properly maverick river-clearing experience when I state with regret that if your own ambitions are as big as they’ve every right to be, H&S probably started applying to you the day before yesterday too.
Regardless of how much wading experience you may have accumulated as a fisherman, you shouldn’t be in any doubt that you’re entering a hostile environment when you set out to do a river cleanup. Digging out heavy rubbish from deep mud or strong currents will test all your skills of wading and balance: the river won’t be grateful, and you’ll find it’s working against your efforts as often as it’s helping.
Now, extrapolate: can you begin to imagine the hazards facing some innocent environmentalist who’s probably never pulled on a pair of waders in his or her life, but who’s fired with enthusiasm and insanely determined to help you get up close and personal with that rusty old motorbike? Seen from this angle, it’s an awesome responsibility you’re taking on – not just for yourself and your immediate loved ones, but for everyone around you.
So… with thanks and acknowledgements to Thames 21 who finally helped me realise all this, here’s how Health and Safety works in practical terms. (Please don’t blame me if you read any further and then go out and kill yourself: I’m only here to help you make up your own mind what’s clever and what’s not. Even if I wanted to, I can’t be your substitute for millennia of evolved intelligence!)
As soon as you start planning your river cleanup, choose one person to be your Event Controller for the occasion, and someone else to be your Health and Safety Officer. Ideally, one or both of them will be first-aid trained, and both your officials should meet at the cleanup location several days ahead to start identifying likely risks and working out ways to reduce them.
What sorts of risks should you expect to find in a river that needs a cleanup?
- Deep mud and dangerous currents - it’s surprising how one doesn’t necessarily obviate the other, even in a short stretch of river.
- Jagged, heavy objects - lurking beneath the surface where you can’t see them properly.
- Needles and broken glass - handle these carefully, preferably at arms’ length with litter-pickers, and drop them safely into the sharps bin that should be a key part of your equipment.
- Steep banks - they may look easily scalable now, but what happens if they become slick with rain or river water? A sheer drop, headfirst into deep water, can suddenly become a real possibility.
- Poisonous plants like giant hogweed - no problem in winter, but under summer sun their sap is photo-activated, easily inflicting third-degree burns. And while it’s probably not life-threatening, there’s no fun in stumbling into a dry ditch and coming out with nettle-rash everywhere your tee-shirt doesn’t cover…
- Sewage or other pollutants - keep a lookout for all forms of floating detritus, as well as oil blooms on the water and other strange smells. In most rivers where it’s necessary to conduct a cleanup, you should probably avoid touching your mouth, eyes or ears with river water until you’ve washed up afterwards.
- Weil’s Disease - if you’re working in still or stagnant water, with even the possibility of rats, you should also be aware of this nasty little number. Leptospirosal jaundice, as it’s also known, is a bacterial illness caught by contact with rats’ urine: very few people ever fall ill from it, but it can kill you if it’s not treated in time.
For assessing your risks in detail, and then working out how to minimise them, Thames 21 suggests using a table like this.
Essentially, it’s all about grading the dangers on a probability scale of (say) 1 to 4, where 1 is improbable and 4 is very likely indeed. Then work out how many people the resulting accident is likely to affect, this time graded in severity from 1 to 4 or 5.
Multiplying probability by severity will give you a good idea of how serious any given accident could prove. As a rule of thumb, results of more than 6 should get you thinking seriously about cancelling your event altogether: it’s just not worth the likelihood of killing yourself or your supporters.
But there are ways out of cancellation, and they’re largely concerned with applying common sense. For instance, if deep fast water is the problem, get your volunteers to work in teams, applying the US military’s principle of “leave no man behind”. Bottomless pits of sticky mud can be cordoned off if necessary, and slippery banks can be made safer by hanging a knotted rope alongside. Sometimes, just warning your volunteers about a particular danger can be enough to reduce it to minor significance.
Now you’ve worked out how to cut your risks with appropriate control measures, run your calculations again, and you’ll probably have found several ways to make your event as safe as possible for everyone involved. And that’s a good thing, because you and your friends will have a better chance of living through the day, and you’ll probably also be able to get up to £5 million of third party cover from the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers. (Mind you, you should also think about personal accident insurance if you’re planning to put yourself at risk of any kind on a regular basis).
When the big day dawns, your Event Controller and Health and Safety Officer should get to the river early, and double-check their earlier conclusions – have the water levels been raised by rain, for instance, or has any other unforeseen hazard appeared? They should also have some extra kit with them:
- High-visibility vests or jackets - for identifying who’s in charge
- A first aid kit - complete with waterproof plasters for covering cuts and grazes
- A whistle - for signifying suspension of the event if anything goes wrong
- Paper towels and a bottle of soapy water - for washing at the end of the cleanup
- A contact sheet - with all the vital statistics of your cleanup (location, grid reference etc) in case the worst happens and someone needs that information for the emergency services
- An accident book - for recording any incidents at the time, just in case that lawyer comes calling later…
At the start of the cleanup, it’s often best to get everyone assembled for your Health and Safety Officer’s briefing before you start issuing kit – you’ll probably find it easier to hold your audience’s attention when they’re not also juggling rubber gloves, grapples and black bin bags.
Using your risk assessment as your script, talk your team through the dangers and the various risk control measures you’ve already identified. Let everyone know the physical boundaries of your cleanup – that way, you won’t get people wandering off into trouble without you knowing about it. Remind them how to lift safely (“bend ze knees!”) and encourage investment in weight-lifters’ belts for those with dodgy discs like mine.
Finally, just to make sure you’re covering as many bases as possible, try to find out if there’s anyone with a tendency to fits or diabetes – and carry a packet of chocolate biscuits just in case.
Now ask your volunteers for their signatures on your sign-in sheet, confirming that they’ve heard what you’ve told them. At the other end of the cleanup, don’t let them disappear without signing out – that idea from the US military again – and encourage hand-washing all round before the pies and the pints start their downward journey at the pub.
In the end, most of Health and Safety is just common sense. True, it’s common sense turned sadly compulsory and form-based in our modern legal atmosphere – but as a volunteer, you’re better placed than most to see the risks, decide how to handle them, and carry on doing good things for an environment that needs them very badly.
After all, who’d now be paid to do what we’re doing gladly – and for free?
Not many people. But you, like me, may just want to Get Stuff Done. Point proven, I think…