The dangers of health-and-safety hysteria

Louise Turnbull reports from Scotland where rule-following firemen failed to rescue a woman trapped in a mine shaft.

Louise Turnbull

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You take a short cut on your way home after visiting a relative and next thing you’re 60 feet down an abandoned mine shaft. This was the unexpected and unfortunate fate of Alison Hume, a 44-year-old lawyer from Galston, Scotland, in July 2008. What happened next, however, was even more surprising.

A fatal accident inquiry this month heard how firefighters called to the accident scene had the necessary equipment to rescue Hume, but were unable to use it because a risk assessment had not been conducted for this type of operation. There were no regulations in place stipulating how to use the rescue equipment in situations involving members of the public. In fact, four months before Hume’s accident, a memo banning the use of rope equipment for members of the public meant that firefighters could use the equipment only to rescue each other.

As a result, the senior fire officer at Hume’s accident scene stopped the 18-strong crew of firemen from attempting to rescue Hume using rope equipment and he even prevented a paramedic going down the mineshaft to attend to her. All that could be done was to lower a fireman down the shaft to sit beside Hume while she lay in pain, waiting for someone not hidebound by red tape to come and rescue her. After a six-hour ordeal, Hume was eventually brought to the surface by a mountain rescue team, but at that moment she suffered a heart attack and died.

In the course of the fatal accident inquiry, which has been adjourned until 29 March, we have heard how some firefighters at the scene did not agree with the decision to wait it out, but it appears that the senior fire officer in charge of the rescue operation considered risk assessment so imperative that he put the opportunity immediately to save Hume’s life second. Professional self-preservation may or may not have played a role here, but in any case the health-and-safety attitude which so strongly permeates our culture today does not rule out that the officer might genuinely believe he did the right thing by following the rules.

Sadly, this case is far from unique. Over the past few years, there have been several high-profile incidents where individuals have been shackled by health-and-safety regulations, though many have also dived in where risk assessors failed to tread. However, today rescue personnel help at their own peril. In March 2007, firefighter Tam Brown jumped in to the River Tay in the Scottish highlands to save a drowning girl, but once he had dried off he was at risk of facing a disciplinary investigation. Thankfully for Brown, the positive media attention meant that he ended up with an award from the Royal Humane Society, and Tayside fire service went quiet about his flouting of the rules.

In September 2007, two police support officers stood by as a 10-year-old boy, Jordan Lyon, drowned in a pool in Wigan, in north-west England. When Sergeant Craig Lippitt arrived at the scene he didn’t hesitate to dive in, but could not save Lyon who was already dead. According to a statement from Greater Manchester Police, the two officers had done the right thing.

The rules on what workers should and should not do in an emergency situation have changed drastically in recent years. In short, we can no longer assume that the first priority of the emergency services is to save our lives. Professions usually taken up by individuals who are ready to risk life and limb to save the rest of us are now held back by a dangerous health-and-safety culture, and human life is not seen as something to be fought for at any cost. At least not if the price is breaking the rules.

In their defence, senior management in the rescue services often argue that they have a duty to protect their staff, too, and point out that the Health and Safety Executive has placed fines on them when individuals have been injured or died in the course of their duties. But such a bureaucratic approach to safety deprives individuals at an emergency scene of the capacity to make their own minds up about what is a worthwhile risk. If firemen and police officers are instructed to stand and watch us die, rather than improvise or intervene, the implication is that our survival is dependent on an individual at the scene being willing to step in and break the rules.

Sadly, as our own judgement is replaced more and more by sets of rules prescribing our behaviour, individuals willing to take a situation into their own hands are a vanishing breed.

The emphasis on risk assessments and codes of conduct denotes a profound lack of interpersonal trust, resulting in such tragic, seemingly avoidable events as the deaths of Jordan Lyon and Alison Hume. In the latter case, there were individuals ready and willing to put themselves at risk to save another human being’s life, but their management held them back. It’s easy to say common sense should have prevailed here, but in a climate where we are constantly encouraged to look for a prescribed set of rules, our belief in our own judgement is insidiously undermined.

Alison Hume’s story should have been one of heroism not hesitation. But unless the drive for regulating human behaviour, constantly submitting it to a health-and-safety rulebook, is reversed, there are likely to be many more cases like hers in the future.

Louise Turnbull works as a trainer in health and social care in Scotland.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi looked at the damaging effects of risk-aversion in Haiti. Jon Holbrook brought up a case where care staff were banned from lifting a wheelchair-bound woman into bed. Stuart Waiton reported from Scotland, where children were being turned away from swimmingpools. Josie Appleton asked why the government was disclaiming responsibility of its own policies. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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