Playing It Safe

With the Health and Safety Grinch doing his best to take the risk out of Christmas, CLAIRE WHELAN asks, when does law become farce?

Christmas health and safety red tape

The festive season has officially drawn to a close. Fairy lights have been turned off, turkey sandwiches are a distant memory and even the wise men have been and gone. Cambridge students everywhere are reluctantly bracing themselves for another eight weeks of stress, supervisions and VKs. Only the fond memories of tinsel and Christmas crackers can spur us through another term. And yet, a number of articles creeping into our national press this season have made me uneasy about the future of our beloved holiday memories. The grinch that stole Christmas appears to be a rapidly approaching reality, manifesting himself in so-called “health and safety” measures.

Let’s start with the beloved tradition of the Christmas tree. So hallowed is a twinkling tree in fostering community festive spirit, that towns across the nation see fit to fritter away funds on employing a D-list celebrity to turn on their hideously bright bulbs. Bob the Builder (CBBC headliner), Nikki Graham (another Big Brother heavyweight) and Chico (he of ‘Chico Time’ fame) were among the host of celebs honoured with this sacrosanct task this year. Cambridge even managed to blag Craig Chalmers. You know, Craig Chalmers. He was the runner-up in the BBC’s ‘Any Dream Will Do’ show. Clearly Cambridge were swept up in the competition, opting for Any Old Reality Star Will Do.

However, it seems not everyone appreciates the sacred holiday status of the Christmas conifer. Two years ago in the Scottish town of Fife council bosses saw fit to encage their modest 10ft tree in not only a concrete base, but a series of white and orange road barriers and finally a ring of metal railings set in concrete bases. Ridiculous as these measures may seem, the health and safety attack on Christmas trees has not ended there. This year, residents of Poole were dismayed to be greeted with a 33ft cone shaped “tree” made out of artificial turf stretched over an aluminium frame. It had no trunk so it couldn’t blow over, no branches that could fall off and hit someone on the head, and no pine needles to get lodged in anyone’s orifices. Eventually the safe but unsightly tree was replaced after the council was put under pressure by a 4000 strong Facebook group, but only after a great deal of distress and angst had been engendered in the tree-loving community.

As if the attack on community spirit was not enough, it seems that not even the workplace is safe from the killjoys of health and safety. One might imagine that the work environment of all places could benefit from some seasonal fun, alas this optimistic outlook is not one shared by health and safety authorities.  In recent years, safety scrooges have issued guidelines so stringent that more and more employers are simply choosing to boycott the traditional office party altogether. Mistletoe has been branded a sexual harassment hazard, stringent rules apply to where and how Christmas decorations can be put up and drunken photocopying of body parts is an absolute no-no. I could bore you senseless with a multitude of tales regaling how safety authorities have taken it upon themselves to ruin festive frivolities, from street lighting displays to the traditional sixpence hidden in Christmas pudding. However what is perhaps most alarming about the advent of banter-banning safety rules is that they don’t stop at Christmas – even the Grinch drew the line at an annual celebration!

Far-fetched as some cases may seem, the health and safety grinch truly appears to be taking over every area of our lives. A woman residing in the West Midlands was recently told to remove her two garden gnomes as they constituted a fire hazard. Nine-year-old Alex Pearson, who suffers from learning disabilities, was not allowed to enter a Tesco store with a balloon, as it too was deemed a health and safety risk (despite the fact that Tesco itself sells balloons inside the store.) Soft toys and blankets have been removed from nurseries because they harbour germs. One council has even banned parents from supervising their children in public play areas because they have not been police checked. Students at Robinson College are not allowed to put posters on their walls in case of fire, even though the entire building is made out of bricks. And what about the joy the humble conker brought to many of our childhood playground sessions? This is a bliss children of today will never experience because some schools have seen fit to brand horse chestnuts, “offensive weapons.” With one foul swoop the classic conker battle becomes but another casualty of health and safety’s war on life.

While I acknowledge, of course, that some health and safety guidelines are perfectly sensible- don’t drink and drive, don’t poke a fork in an electric plug socket – I can’t help but think that things have just gone too far. When Poole Town Centre Management Board are spending £14,000 on what is essentially a large door mat masquerading as a Christmas tree, it’s time to stop. Not only do these over-protective guidelines and rules undermine the importance of genuine health and safety precautions, they inhibit us from living! Life is full of risks, and while taking some measures to ultimately limit undue risk may be advantageous in the long run, we must accept that we cannot hope to eliminate every hazard to our well-being. We need to stop the safety avalanche now, before we are all sitting alone in padded rooms wrapped in bubble wrap and cling film.