Health and Safety

It’s absolutely never about ‘health’. It’s always about ‘safety’.

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‘Health & Safety’ is the catch-all term for everything that could possibly go wrong in the workplace. It obviously springs from the legislation and executive of the same name – but in practice, the instances of the ‘health’ bits of Health & Safety are non-existent. It’s always just ‘safety’.

You can’t leave that there.

Why not?

It’s Heath and Safety.

Well no. “It” isn’t “health and safety” at all. It isn’t “health” or “safety” either. It is, most likely, just a possible risk in relation to people’s safety. More specifically, “it is a breach of health and safety regulations, but only those regulations which are specifically in relation to public safety.” Admittedly that’s a bit of a mouthful.

That doesn’t stop the corporate emails warning people not to do things for reasons of ‘Health & Safety’. A phrase unthinkingly churned out with the regularity of an irritating playground retort. “I know you are, but what am I?”

Because reasons.

A whole industry exists around Health and Safety. Companies whose sole, life-sapping purpose is to produce workshops and ‘learning materials’ covering topics such as ‘how to not block a fire exit with the sort of mountain of paper files that no longer exists anywhere’.

It’s a thrilling half day in anyone’s working life.

Who can tell me what the risks are in this scenario?

Anyone?

That’s right. They might trip over that extension lead, hurtle headlong through that plate glass window thereby severing a major artery, knock those computer monitors into those fish tanks, electrocuting their colleagues and presenting a fire risk.

Any other issues?

Countless corporate videos have seen struggling Lycra-clad ‘comedy’ actors demonstrating hilariously-exaggerated health and safety scenarios played out in the workplace, teaching vital subjects such as ‘how to lift a box’, like a sort of corporate Laurel & Hardy but an awful lot less funny even than that.

And who hasn’t spent a fun, interactive, afternoon in front of a PC doing a wearisome Health & Safety “quiz”, the failure of which can only be achieved by deliberately choosing the least likely answer? I sat through a three year degree course and you’re asking me multiple choice questions about fire exits?

Health is about disease. Hospitalisation. Germs. Viruses. Colds. Communicable unpleasantness. Pregnancy. Infection. Ebola. MRSA. Immune systems. Fluids. Rot. Frightful sordidness. Nobody bothers about these. Except in hospitals, hopefully.

Safety is about falling off things. Tripping down stairs. Having a pot of paint fall on your head when you walk under a ladder. Leaving a chair on a walkway or trailing an electrical cable across a stairwell. Bad backs. Ergonomics. Hot water. Coffee lids. Electrocution. Irradiation. Slips. Broken bones.

So what are those mythical things that represent both a health and safety risk simultaneously?

A bucket of anthrax spores balanced precariously over a toilet cubicle door? The biological risk worsened by the threat of concussion?

A badly adjusted and positioned office chair, whose twin evils of location and ergonomics cause simultaneously a ‘trip hazard’ and a debilitating period of backpain-related sick leave? Yeah, slackers. Take an ibuprofen.

In most cases, and as with most things, the appeal to health and safety can be safely dispensed with in favour of ‘common sense’. Sadly there is no legislation or government quango responsible for that, nor corporate departments dedicated to its promotion.

Sec-re-terry

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Take a letter, Miss Pringle. Actually, forget that, I’ll do it myself.

Ah, secretaries. Once the all-powerful guardians of both outbound correspondence and the discerning executive’s diary, the personal secretary has been rightly replaced by admin support functionaries supporting comparatively enormous numbers of people, since today’s modern business person is quite capable of taking their own letters and choosing a convenient gap in two online calendars in which to place a meeting.

Tell someone these days that you “have a secretary” and they will assume that you are making overblown claims about your corporate importance, or are deficient in the basics of modern office etiquette, as well as being unable to use tools which are second nature to the rest of us. Perhaps all three. At the very least, they will conclude that your employer has missed out on the democratising march of progress which has done so much to even out demeaning workplace inequality. The same march has led to the common practice of job title inflation, a process that ensures that everyone’s a director, even when they’re blatantly not.

Suggesting, in your voicemail greeting, that callers should contact your secretary is to confess to a weird seventies corporate existence, on from which you haven’t moved since Are You Being Served? was all over the telly. Even if your nominated secretary has the vaguest clue who you are or how they may be able to assist a random caller – other than by ringing you themselves using exactly the same mobile number on which your caller has just discovered your unavailability – it’s probably true to say that the only outcome will be a message taken and a delayed response. Your contact may as well leave you a voicemail.

But clearly, it’s not traditional secretaries themselves that aren’t a thing. A dying breed they may be, their usefulness curtailed by technology and their all-seeing, all knowing, somewhat subservient, housewifely relationship with the big boss character redefined within a wider team and across a highly useful set of functions, but the concept of secretary is obviously a ‘thing’, albeit an increasingly archaic one.

Rather, it’s people’s pronunciation of the word secretary that isn’t a thing. The former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, routinely refers to his time as the “Home Seckerterry”, and while getting syllable two wrong is unusual, almost everyone has started pronouncing the word as if it has four syllables rather than three: sec-re-terry rather than sec-re-tree. Well, not quite tree, exactly, but nearly tree.

If you can’t even pronounce ‘secretary’, it probably helps explain why, like almost everyone else, you don’t actually have one. Anyone worthy of a real secretary would have a PA. The personal assistant is a bit like a secretary used to be, but without the compulsory short skirt and tea-making skills.

To make people hate you that bit more you can refer to them as an ‘executive assistant’. Because you can also elevate that job title as well as your own.

And such is the positive, inclusive and very welcome influence of political correctness in the workplace, the PA doesn’t even have to be a chick.

A bouncing baby boy… and other workplace birth announcement rules

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The inevitable birth announcement will probably claim that the baby boy you’ve just delivered is ‘bouncing’. This is unlikely.

You know the problem.  A colleague has a baby. Someone has to write an email about it and send it to everyone else in the company.  Yet ultimately, the facts about childbirth are either grizzly and barbaric or cloyingly mawkish.  The permissible facts are few and far between, and most of them are inappropriate for the workplace.

As a starting point, that baby boy almost certainly won’t be bouncing, not unless you’re after a visit from social services.  Bouncing children are not really a thing: the best you can hope for is some inconvenient squawking which goes on for several years.  At a few hours old, they’re unlikely to be all that objectively beautiful either, except to the mother.  And you’d hate to contradict her.  Both phrases should be banned outright. 

But there are so many standard features of the workplace birth announcement that should be outlawed, including (but not limited to):

  • Any mention of the child’s birth weight.  It’s a confidential medical fact.  And the temptation to convert the official medical records (metric) into imperial so that thickies understand it is too great.  All babies are roughly 3.5 kg so let’s all move on.
  •  The health of the mother, including expressions such as “doing well”.  This too is a confidential medical fact.  And if it’s not good news, e.g. if the mother is dead, or badly ripped, there is not really the corporate language to do justice to that sort of frightful gruesomeness.
  • The health of the baby. See above.
  • The name of the child.  You probably don’t know your colleague’s mother’s name: why should you learn their offspring’s name unless they mention it out of working hours? And anyway, they’ll probably choose something awful and you’ll be forced to agree that it’s a pleasant name whilst secretly thinking that they’ve misspelled it in a bad way or chosen something off the telly.
  • The increasingly prevalent practice of parents sending round 80s-Athena-styled photographs of the father of the child, naked from the jeans upward, holding the newborn child, often in one forearm.  Particularly if the photo has been staged in an NHS bed within minutes of the birth before anyone’s been round with a mop. Gruesome, and to be avoided.
  • Any attempt to lighten the birth announcement by doing it in the style of an IT Release Note, a Star Wars script, an episode of Casualty or a “hilarious” now-arriving pun based on some local train station.  Also any announcements themed around the workplace in which the father works.
  • More than one, small, photo.  Preferably the child on its own, and certainly nothing showing that your partner wouldn’t have on display at the company ball.
  • Any mention of the time of the birth to more than one hour’s accuracy.  What is to be gained by knowing the length of the labour or the fact that the worst of the mess started at exactly seventeen minutes past midnight?

Of course, the birth announcement is just the start of it.  Who doesn’t live in fear of that colleague who, even you don’t really know them all that well,  puts you on a Photobox mailing list and sends you photographic updates every two weeks for the first year of their child’s life, bombarding you with opportunities to buy a photo of a child you’ve never met?  At least you can have fun reporting their Facebook photos as inappropriate, but there is little escape from email.

Then they bring the child into work <shudder> and everyone has to have a cuddle.  Especially the really clucky ones.  It’s like a primary school show and tell, except with a living, sentient being.  Is that even legal?  I’m sure you weren’t allowed to bring pets in to school; I don’t see why a workplace is deemed appropriate for a new baby.

There are various other rules that should be followed in order to avoid any birth announcement pitfalls, but it strikes me that what’s needed is a really good template that can be used without fear of getting it wrong.  The following is offered as an exemplar of good practice, conveying the essential information without cluttering up everyone’s day:

Chris’s partner gave birth to a baby boy last night.  Chris will be off until two weeks tomorrow.