HEALTH AND SAFETY VS COMMON SENSE

by Libby Andrews; photography by Adelina Ilieva

Some Britons may be moving to Bulgaria to escape over-regulation at home. Is it really safe?

bulgarian builders.jpg

Bulgaria's carefree environment provides expats like myself with a sense of freedom and safety rarely experienced in our home country. Especially in the countryside, life here is sometimes safer for children and teens, less complicated for adults, and harks back to Britain's admirable values of 50 years ago, where everyone “looked out” for each other. However, whilst life here is so much more straightforward and relaxed, Bulgaria trails way behind the rest of Europe in terms of health and safety. But from a certain standpoint this may not be too bad after all, since in many countries the rules are getting out of hand.

Take the case of a leading UK bank that forbids staff to change a light bulb. Instead, it resorts to its outsourced contractors who travel up to 100 miles to perform a task that may “put the health and safety of the workforce at risk”. In Bulgaria this would be laughable. I recently came across a team of construction workers who were celebrating the completion of an apartment block on the Black Sea. They feasted on roast lamb, which they had slaughtered inside the completed building, letting the blood flow freely across the concrete floor to give thanks for the fact that no one had been injured - or worse - during the build.

Effectively, some people might think that the UK has become a “nanny state” wrapped in a protective patchwork blanket made up of hundreds of pieces of legislation, ranging from the basic 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act to more bizarre laws that are starting to constrict personal freedom. Alan

Pearce's recent book Playing It Safe: The Crazy World of Britain's Health and Safety Regulations, has some wonderful examples of how jobsworth officials are free to issue astoundingly stupid edicts which seem specifically aimed at spoiling the quality of people's lives in the name of health and safety. He cites examples of Wellington boots being sold with a 24-page instruction manual, pantomime performers being unable to throw sweets into the audience and circus artists being forced to wear hard-hats. Yet, when thrown into the Bulgarian context, these regulations are shown up for the futile rules they are.

For example, compare the British dentist who greets patients from behind a mask, protective goggles and rubber gloves with the Bulgarian dentist who wears none of this protective uniform and indeed might enjoy a cigarette in the surgery between customers. Or how about the rule recently imposed on Bulgaria, which states that children under a certain age and height must sit in a car seat, once the exclusive domain of UK preschoolers? In the UK parents rushed out in droves to comply with this law. In Bulgaria, village parents are still trying to figure out how to strap a booster seat onto the family horse and cart. Are Bulgarian children worse off because their parents fail to comply with this rule or are Brit kids being wrapped in unnecessary cotton wool layers of safety?

The list of laughable comparisons continues: UK children are banned from playing conkers or participating in sack races because the activities may
cause injury. Taking anything resembling a weapon - including a bow and arrow or light sabre - to school is also barred. In Bulgaria, however, children not only play conkers and take toy guns into school, but also start smoking at age 10 and think nothing of throwing fireworks in the street. In the UK, playing with anything that hasn't been wrapped in layers of packaging and doesn't come with a rigorous instruction manual outlining risks is considered too dangerous for children. On the other hand, in Bulgaria, children are left unprotected from activities that really do carry substantial personal risks.

And while the Bulgarians ride around on motorcycles without crash helmets and drive 20-year-old Ladas with questionable brakes, a district nurse in Bournemouth who visited her patients on her bicycle has been banned from doing so on the grounds that it is too dangerous. Kathy Archer cycled up to 15 miles each day; not only did this keep her fit, but it also saved her employers £1,000 a year in petrol. Yet Bournemouth Primary Care Trust said that cycling was too risky because Kathy, who carries syringes and needles as part of her nursing kit, could be attacked by drug users. They also said she could spread infection between homes as she carries her equipment with her. In Bulgaria we pick all manner of fresh fruit from trees in neighbouring gardens or parks. We throw sticks to try to knock fruit from the treetops, while children balance precariously on branches to fill up their bags. Yet, a town hall in the UK would deem this a health hazard: Worcester County Council cordoned off two pear trees using security tape and a plastic barrier to prevent fruit from falling on passersby. The 9 m, or 30 ft, trees have stood in Cripplegate Park for 50 years without any problems. Signs have also been screwed to each tree, saying: “Warning, pears falling!”

Over on the Black Sea, we enjoy carefree summers swimming in pools at beach resorts. Children hurtle down water slides on the backs of inflatable crocodiles, young men do somersault dives from poolside bars and children roam free on the beach. Life isn't so carefree in the West Midlands, however, where several public pools have banned foam flotation aids over fears that they could accidentally hit swimmers. Meanwhile, George Parsonage, 61, who over 50 years has saved more than 1,500 people from drowning in the River Clyde in Glasgow, has been told by the Strathclyde police that he is in breach of health and safety regulations, despite the fact that his heroic acts earned him a special lifetime achievement award from Princess Alexandra.

In my village on the Black Sea we are campaigning to get a small play area for our children. Perhaps our mayor needs to consult with the EU before going ahead with proposed plans: in the Cotswold village of Bledington the see-saw that has stood in a local play area for 40 years is being dismantled. A Playing Fields Association official claimed that it presented a danger under EU directive EN1176-1; 1998 Playground Equipment for Outside Use. The fact no one had ever been hurt playing on it did not matter one iota. The absurdity of the situation did not end there; the swings also had to be moved given the potential risk that they could damage a child's eyes because they faced the sun.

The basic premise behind such policies is a risk assessment which balances the likelihood and the seriousness of consequences that could occur from a given activity. If the risk is high then control measures must be implemented to decrease risk levels. The UK Health and Safety Commission website lists a hierarchy of controls which suggests eliminating the risk as the best option and recommends personal protective equipment as the last resort. Naturally, cost is a key factor in implementing any safety guidelines and the Health and Safety Executive state that “reasonably practicable” measures should be undertaken. The driving force behind these rules is not a genuine desire to save or improve lives, but the sheer terror of potential legal action. The culture of compensation, a legacy of the UK's close relationship with America, where fast food chains are sued if they fail to inform customers that their coffee is hot, has forced up insurance premiums and encouraged ordinary people to make ridiculous claims for alleged violations of personal safety.

Indeed, in the UK today there is virtually no area of everyday life left untouched by the Health and Safety Executive, an organisation that has banned more commonplace activities than an authoritarian regime would have. So next time you stumble on a crumbing Bulgarian pavement and feel the urge to sue the town council to get it fixed, think twice. You may soon find yourself unable to change a light bulb if you do.

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