OH & S doesn’t kill people, cowardly people kill people

by on 18 April, 2012
Actually – writes Chris Ashton – they both do!


Instituted in 1940 the George Cross, or GC, is Britain's highest civilian award – the lesser-known, peacetime equivalent of the famous Victoria Cross. The list of recipients is indeed distinguished, and apart from military personnel engaged in peacetime acts of gallantry, the next largest category is police officers from all over the UK, and indeed the Commonwealth.

But that category has been in decline of late – one suspects a permanent decline. As a former police officer myself, I am loathed to cast aspersions on the objective bravery of those who still serve, but I would submit that the culture in which they now serve is a hinderance to bravery. In fact – forget about brave and gallant acts – it's a hinderance to doing the very basics of the job they are sworn to do.

The most outrageous example is that of Simon Burgess who drowned tragically earlier this year. As horrible as any untimely death is (he was only 41), this is a death that evoked outrage throughout Britain as a veritable army of police, fire and ambulance personnel refused to enter a shallow model-boating lake in Gosport, Hampshire. Those that did seek to enter were cautioned against such rash behaviour in the terms of the occupational health and safety legislation. For more than half an hour, this group, sworn to protect and serve, did neither; rather they looked on as Mr Burgess' body floated face down a few metres from the lake's edge, and they waited for so-called level 2 certified officers from Hampshire Fire and Rescue. You see, it turns out that most of Hampshire's finest (all of whom, it was revealed at the Coronial inquiry, could swim) are not permitted to enter water higher than their ankles, and even then, not if the water is flowing. 


Hampshire's finest!
Bravely, they negotiate a 3' artificial lake, with the aid of depth measuring aparatus and spacesuits.

So by the time the more highly qualified variety of public servants arrived on the scene – greeted, as they were, by useless a cast of thousands: numerous emergency vehicles, good-for-nothing emergency workers, a rescue helicopter that had landed, and even an inflatable tent erected for the occasion – the rescue of Mr Burgess had become what every police officer wishes they didn't have to attend: a body recovery operation.

Chris Snowdon recently labelled Australia the world's number one nanny state. And while I do not dispute his thesis – and in fact, I live here, he doesn't, so I know it's true – I will say this: common-or-garden variety police officers in Australia can, and regularly do, enter water deeper than their ankles. Every few weeks one hears of a police officer somewhere in Australia effecting an aquatic rescue (only "level 3" officers in Hampshire are actually allowed to swim). But that isn't bravery – sorry lads, no GC – it's merely doing the job they are sworn, and paid, to do.

The sad death of Mr Burgess should cast a pall of shame over all concerned; from legislators and public servants of the Health and Safety Executive (which is responsible at least for a culture of regulatory legalism that suppresses even the slightest hint of bravery), to operational supervisors of the various agencies, to the very officers involved – or not involved as was mostly the case – in the incident. And it should be a salutary lesson to all of us that increased regulations – even ones in the politically correct name of "health and safety" – not only cost basic freedoms, but cost lives as well.

Chris Ashton is a post-graduate student in arts and theology. He lives in Sydney, is married, and has a delightfully red-headed two year old daughter. He tweets @ChrisAshton.


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