Health and safety spitfires

It must be a slow news day when one of the top stories on the Today programme is the news that a WWII Spitfire pilot who survived deadly dogfights with the Luftwaffe was barred from sitting in a restored model because of health and safety concerns.

According to numerous news reports out this morning, 91-year-old Eric Carter went to inspect a newly-revamped Spitfire at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent, the city where he trained to fly. He asked officials if he could relive his fighting days by sitting in the cockpit and was told that it was a health and safety risk. Carter was quoted as saying: “You couldn’t make it up. I used to fly those things every day fighting the Germans — now that really was a health and safety concern! To think that I couldn’t sit in a stationary Spitfire in case I got hurt. I just wish the Luftwaffe had been so caring.”

It’s a sad indictment of health and safety (and facilities management more generally) that it’s the ultra cautious and seemingly ridiculous decisions which make the headlines – whether it be a war hero denied a seat in a stationary plane, fans at a Tom Jones look-alike concert banned from throwing underwear at the Welsh crooner in case he tripped over them; Humberside fire officers, who risk their lives daily, being banned from climbing stepladders to fit smoke alarms as it breached working at height regulations; or some communities denied permission to hold street parties to celebrate last year’s Royal Wedding because of health and safety fears. Meanwhile the daily work that FMs and H&S officers do to save lives and prevent serious accidents is largely ignored – until there’s a major accident and someone needs a scapegoat.

Stoke-on-Trent City Council has been quoted as saying that on the day in question there was no proper seat in the plane, which had been recently coated with paint containing traces of radioactive radium. Carter’s age was also an issue (although he sounded pretty vigorous on the radio). Without knowing more, it’s impossible to say whether the museum staff were being unnecessarily cautious or had very valid reasons for the decision they made. Of course that doesn’t stop it hitting the headlines.

The government recently launched a consultation to abolish large numbers of health and safety rules following the independent Lofstedt review which argued that the problem lay less with the H&S regulations and more with the way they are interpreted and applied.

It’s a difficult balancing act, but facilities professionals must not be trigger happy when it comes to health and safety, and extend regulations designed to address real risks to cover trivial ones. Yes, something of a litigation culture is developing in the UK, but (most) people can still be trusted to exercise their common sense at work or in public spaces. If we don’t let them do that and we continue the ‘nanny state’ approach, facilities management will become a laughing stock.

Cathy Hayward