Guest Post: Health and Safety now religious dogma

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In our now thoroughly secular society new “religions” have replaced the old Christian based ones. The one which preaches loudest – and thus gets the most attention – is of course Environmentalism and its closely related schism, Climate Change – anthropogenic of course. Like all religions, this one  has its holy tenets: the planet must be put above all other considerations; almost everything we do is bad for Gaia; and of course humans are responsible for the catastrophic climate change which will engulf us on the Green equivalent of Judgment Day, unless we radically alter our behavior by next Thursday.

The other religion  constantly gaining ground is Health and Safety. Everything we do after getting out of bed is now seen to be surrounded by Risk, and Risk Assessments and Task Analyses – and other secular sacraments – must be constantly practiced, not just in the workplace, but at the school gala day and at the local playground.  Activities which were once seen as entirely pleasurable are now seen to be problematic, with Hazards – with an emphatic capital “H” –  now all around us.

Before Christmas I took my son to the Helensville Christmas parade; usually a jolly enjoyable and impressive affair for such a small town. We made what turned out to be the  grave mistake of turning up early  in order to gain a good vantage point.  For almost an hour before the parade started, we were harangued over the PA by a retired teacher who exhorted us to “keep the young ones safe” and make sure no children ran in the road because of the dreadful Hazard of floats moving – when they moved at all – at 3 kmh.

Lolly scrambles are of course  a thing of the past because of  the risk of children being run down as they retrieve the treats from where they have been scattered. Has anyone reading this ever heard of a child being killed or injured during a lolly scramble? Anywhere in New Zealand?  Anywhere at all for that matter?  I certainly have not, but lolly scrambles have now gone, very soon I am sure,  to be followed by the right to let off fireworks in our own back yards.

The latest manifestation of the heresy of taking risks is the latest developments in the Pike River mine saga. Yesterday saw what I regard as the ludicrous development of the chairman of directors of Solid Energy now saying he would resign if forced to allow those who wished to risk their lives trying to recover whatever might remain of their loved ones, even if he and his fellow directors were legally indemnified against any and all liability.  What an absurdly patriarchal and condescending position to adopt!

What this man is saying can be boiled down to this: “Even if I am absolved from any and all consequences of what I regard as your fool’s errand, I will resign my position if I am forced to allow you to risk your own lives”. Presuming he is fully indemnified, what bloody business is it of his what risk those wishing to enter the damn thing choose to voluntarily take? How have we reached the position where adults, fully informed of the risk, and fully aware that no help will be forthcoming if they find themselves in peril, are not allowed to take those risks?

A few weeks ago saw the 50th anniversary of the Strongman mine disaster in which 19 miners lost their lives in January 1967. Illustrated news articles showed tough looking men – most with a roll your own cigarette accompanying their cup of tea – taking a break before heading underground again to try and recover the bodies of their mates. In a much less informed era, without robots or precise analysis of what atmosphere they would be facing, there was no question of trying to prevent the workmates of the dead from recovering them. Indeed had anyone tried to stop them, I have little doubt that person would have been brushed aside if not laid out cold, whether they were a policeman or a politician.

Fifty years later we have another disaster in an industry sadly bestrewn by them.  Those wishing to enter the mine are enormously better informed than their compatriots of fifty years ago – and yet there is endless debate about whether they should be “allowed” to risk their lives, even if the legal environment is  altered so there is no risk to anyone else, and no legal or other consequences will befall others  if they fail or find themselves in peril.

There are endless red herrings bandied about, by politicians, journalists, and surprisingly for me, even commenters here, a place where one would presumably find the greatest concentration of clear thinkers and those of a libertarian bent.  It is entirely irrelevant whether the plan is sound or not – those promoting it wish to take the risk. It is entirely irrelevant what the precise composition of the  atmosphere in the  mine is – those wishing to enter it  wish to risk entering it  regardless. It is even less relevant how much – if anything – remains of the 29 dead; it is important to their families and workmates to make the effort to try and recover what they can.

Seventy five years ago New Zealanders fought in  the greatest aerial conflict the world has yet seen. Almost 3000 New Zealand airmen lost their loves over the skies of Europe, either on their way to or returning from bombing missions over Germany. Often there was little left of  the doomed crews of crashed bombers – but brave French, Belgian and Dutch civilians literally risked execution to recover what they could of the crews, and give them a proper burial, even if all that remained was a limb and part of a uniform.  I see the Pike River situation as little different.

Miners are a tough breed working in an environment which is always subject to numerous perils. There are and sadly will always be accidents where men lose their lives. It is clearly a part of mining culture that absolutely everything must be done to recover one’s lost mates. The survivors of the Strongman disaster of 50 years ago still lament the mates they were forced to leave behind in that mine.

But it is not just the workplace and Christmas parades  which have become infected by obsession with health and safety. The wreck of the cruise ship “Mikhail Lermontev” has already claimed the lives of several divers exploring it. Each time a fatality occurs there are mutterings about “banning” people diving on it because of the risk. 

So long as they are properly informed of the risks they face, it’s nobody’s bloody business how risky it is;  we supposedly live in  a free society  where we are allowed   to risk our lives – so long as we don’t expect others to put their lives at risk to bail us out if it all goes wrong. Those who wish to re-enter Pike River are all adamant that the risk they wish to take is theirs alone. They  don’t expect anyone to come in after them. They will sign whatever document is required to absolve all and sundry for any liability or consequences of their risk taking.

They will not rest until they – like the fully informed brave Dutch of seventy five years ago –  are allowed to try and recover  the remains of their comrades. Rather than coming up with endless reasons why they can’t, “We” should be allowing them to get on with it.

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