A small news item that appeared recently in a weekly magazine keeps haunting me, for it raises some alarming questions. Here it is, quoted verbatim:
“Northern Rail staff who failed to come to the aid of an elderly lady when she fell over on an escalator at Leeds Station explained that they were not permitted to intervene because they’d not been trained in ‘people handling’. Northern Rail later confirmed that the staff had been following proper procedure.”
It’s the “people handling” term that chills my blood. What has become of us if the persons in charge of “proper procedure” at Northern Rail can get away with this inhuman arrangement? Yes, of course, one has to handle situations, jobs, a new car, parcels or (with care) dangerous equipment, but if an old lady falls over on an escalator, surely what she needs is not handling but a hand to help her get up. Alas, ordinary compassion seems to be off the official menu. ( Can it be that passion is also off the private agenda? Until fairly recently people made love; now they have sex. Sounds grim.)
There’s plenty of “proper procedure “around us. I recall the melancholy experience of a friend who had a workman repairing some brickwork on his house until he stopped because he couldn’t reach a faulty bit of the wall without a ladder. Yes, he had a ladder but wasn’t allowed to use it unless it was held firmly at ground level by a specially trained person, and as the householder lacked that training, all further work had to be stopped for the rest of the day. (I remember a locally advertised course offering to teach ladies twenty ways to fold a napkin, but how many ways can you hold a ladder?)
I know I am not the first person to rage against the exaggerations of the Health & Safety rules – my unfavourite example is a certain local authority that wanted to cut down some fine old chestnut trees to stop children from getting hurt by conkers – but isn’t it time we took a good hard look at its harmful effects? It seems to me that the bottom line is not a great warm tender concern for our collective safety and well-being but a defence against possible litigation by members of the public. I see the growing mass of proper procedures growing up around us like a thorny thicket, excluding all spontaneity and freedom of action. Can’t do this, mustn’t do that – ye Gods, I last experienced that at the age of three when, unlike me, only the grown-ups knew all the rules and yet expected me to obey them. And, as the final irony, the world around us is globally becoming less safe and less healthy.
Well, it’s no good. I won’t play. I can feel a growing desire to break a few rules, be politically incorrect, take some modest risks – not necessarily on ladders – and make quite sure that should I topple over on an escalator, only someone untrained in people handling helps me up.