Rise up against the tyranny of the safety Nazis: Persecuted people of Britain! You’ve had your lives ruined by petty, nonsensical ‘safety’ rules. Now a brilliant new book explodes the myths
Often ‘health and safety’ is abused by private and public organisationsNow ID is needed if someone buying Christmas crackers looks under 16Most reasons given for not using mobiles on airplanes are bogus
Published: 22:09 BST, 14 June 2014 | Updated: 12:42 BST, 15 June 2014
Summer 2009. One of us, Tracey, is standing at the back of a long and hot security queue to get into the House of Commons. She is wearing a jacket and carrying her handbag. From within, her mobile phone rings. She goes to answer it.
‘Get off that phone!’ screams an officious security guard.
‘Er, hang on, why?’ asks Tracey who, as director of the Sense About Science charity – an organisation that promotes public understanding of science – knows more about how mobiles work than most.
‘Because we all want to go home alive tonight!’ comes the unanswerable response.
For your ‘ealth an’ safety: A new book looks at the way in which the seemingly unanswerable interests of ‘safety and security’ are being used and abused
Exchanges like the one above are an increasing feature of modern life. And after being confronted with petty officialdom and apparently random rule-making once too often Tracey and I decided to write a book looking at the way in which the seemingly unanswerable interests of ‘safety and security’ are being used by companies, officials and security agencies all over the world and in all walks of life from airports to schools, hospitals, swimming pools and parks.
These rules are making life more complicated, more expensive and more frustrating than it needs to be.
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If you are travelling through an airport with hand luggage, you will already have dumped your bottle of shampoo and abandoned your water (only to find yourself queuing for replacements at twice the price a few metres air-side from security).
You will have kicked yourself for leaving your good nail file in your toiletry bag as this will now be at the bottom of a ten-gallon drum, along with discarded snow globes, bottles of aftershave, key rings and a variety of artifacts and souvenirs whose plane-hijacking potential could never have been anticipated by their owners.
If you visited the London Olympics, you probably had your picnic drinks confiscated on arrival. And if you have ever tried to find out to which hospital ward a relative has been taken, boarded a train from London to Paris with a penknife in your backpack, taken more than two children to a public swimming pool, or dropped in to help with reading classes at your local school, you will have discovered that, in the interests of safety and security, you can’t. Most of us have encountered safety and security rules that appear to defy logic and common sense.
Terrorism? Liquids kept in containers of less than 100ml can be taken on airplanes – but only if they are scanned separately in a clear bag at security
Cyclists cannot leave their bikes near government buildings because of fears that the frames might be turned into bombs; children have to use more complex encryption in the passwords for their school intranets than the US Government used to defend its Cold War nuclear arsenal. Is all of this making us safer?
We are not arguing for danger. The world is a much safer place than it was even a generation ago and this is thanks, in no small part, to sensible rules and evidence-based measures. It used to be legal to drive a car when paralytic with alcohol; now it is not, and that is a very good thing. We know that in many cases security forces are doing a good, quiet job keeping us safe.
But the rules have to make sense. Very often they do not.
It is probably quite hard, for instance, to blow anything up with Christmas crackers, but that is not the way some people see it.
In December 2013, Ben Meghreblian set off for his staff Christmas party. He had agreed to bring along the Christmas crackers. He grabbed a nice-looking box from his local Marks & Spencer and went to the till to pay for them.
The assistant looked at the crackers, then looked at Ben and asked him for ID. When he asked why, she pointed to a sign on the shelf: ‘It is a criminal offence to sell a product containing explosives to anyone under 16.’ Ben was 34.
SAFETY MYTH BUSTED #1
MYTH: Heat from radio waves and the potential for sparks mean mobiles should ON NO ACCOUNT be switched on at petrol stations. Petrol, after all, is one of the most flammable substances known to man.
THE REALITY… Petrol is not as flammable as we suppose. Dropped cigarettes do not light petrol. The chances of a mobile spark doing so are virtually nil. There is no known case of a mobile igniting petrol.
It turned out there’s no evidence of mobiles interfering with hospital equipment, either, whereas walkie-talkies do. Many medics now carry mobiles
He was asked to wait about while a further assistant was summoned who was then able to approve the ID and the sale. To buy six crackers.
We discovered that Ben’s experience was far from an isolated incident.
The Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2010 seem to have made retailers so nervous that they train their staff to be cautious to the point of absurdity.
Crackers are included in the scope of the pyrotechnic regulations because they contain minuscule amounts of silver fulminate, which is a controlled explosive.
Paradoxically, children’s toy gun caps and ‘snappit’ bangers, which also contain silver fulminate, are not covered by the regulations.
This substance has also caused crackers to fall foul of laws relating to the transportation of explosives.
In 2007 the snaps from 650 crackers destined for troops serving in Afghanistan had to be removed because of a ban on ‘carrying explosives in RAF aircraft’. The irony seemed to be lost on the regulators.
Mobile phones, for some reason, have acquired an almost magical aura of bogus danger.
We have been told for years that we are not supposed to use a mobile phone on an aircraft.
If you questioned it you were probably told that the radio signals they send out as they search for base stations are powerful enough to scramble an aircraft’s delicate electronic controls and navigation systems.
Or that they could interfere with the vital communications between the plane and air-traffic control; or that they will throw the fly-by-wire control system into turmoil. All this is almost complete nonsense.
Deadly serious: In 2006, the ‘gravestone hysteria’ saw councils topple hundreds of thousands of headstones to protect the public
In 1999 Neil Whitehouse, was jailed for a year after ‘recklessly and negligently’ endangering the lives of everyone on board a flight from Manchester to Madrid. The court was told that he had ‘repeatedly refused’ to turn off his mobile phone when asked by cabin crew.
Experts testified that the phone could interfere with the aircraft’s navigation systems and after the verdict the British Civil Aviation Authority issued a statement strongly supporting the prosecution. Greater Manchester Police, in its new-found role as an authority in the science of electromagnetic interference and avionics systems, did the same.
But here’s the thing: a large airliner will regularly carry several hundred passengers and on any given flight more than 50 of those people will have forgotten to turn off their phones.
How come no crash has ever been attributed to a mobile phone?
We spoke to Dr Martyn Thomas, a software engineer, electronics expert and chairman of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s IT panel. According to Dr Thomas, the mobile phone ban came about partly as a result of conversations and anecdotes rather than research:
SAFETY MYTH BUSTED #2
MYTH: Terrorists hiding in aeroplane toilet cubicles can mix three benign liquids – drain cleaner, nail varnish remover and hair dye – to form triacetone tri peroxide (TATP), which can make fuselage-shattering bombs
THE REALITY…This would require a controlled temperature, specialist kit, hours to prepare, then more hours while it dries to a powder.
UK scientists took four days and 30 attempts to create such an explosion – in a lab! The rule banning liquids has no relevance to commercial air travel
‘It was just a general precaution backed up with a string of anecdotes, none of which could be substantiated in terms of actual [engineering] trials and evidence.’
In fact, we discovered that in nearly all instances where mobile phone use is banned or restricted – general hospital wards, garage forecourts and so forth, there is zero evidence that the use of these devices poses a real risk and no examples where anyone has ever been harmed.
Once the big steel door of safety has swung shut, it has proved very difficult for people armed with the evidence to push it open again.
While it is hard to challenge a rule because it looks like you are condoning terrorism or compromising air passenger safety, it is much, much harder to argue your case if it looks like you may be endangering children.
Yet so often, we found, new and ludicrous rules have proliferated around schools, playing areas, sports grounds and pools – all in the interests of safety and ‘child protection’ and yet which, on closer inspection, are based on nothing more than assumptions – and often a complete misreading by the ‘authorities’ of what the rules actually say.
In 2006 Ken Paine was standing on the touchline of a football pitch in Ashford, Kent. He was there to watch his son Jake play in a local under-16s match. Things turned surreal when he pulled out a camera to take a picture.
He later told reporters: ‘The referee stopped the play, and came over to me and asked if I was a member of the press. I said, “No.” ‘He said, “So why are you taking photographs?”
‘I said, “Because my son’s playing.” And he said, “Well, you can’t do that, I’m afraid.” ‘I said, “Well, why not?” And he said, “Because of the Child Protection Act.” ’
No fire here: The chances of a mobile spark igniting petrol are virtually nil
As parents, we have both been faced with people who have tried to stop us doing things that used to be considered completely acceptable such as taking pictures of our children in sports matches, at football practice and in school plays.
We did some checking, which was no straightforward matter because, like many of these rules, no one seems to be responsible for them. We contacted the Department for Education, the Football Association and child-safeguarding experts at the NSPCC.
We also contacted the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which polices the Data Protection Act (DPA). Is it illegal to take pictures of kids playing football? No, it turns out. What about nativity plays and the like? ‘No rules at all.’
In fact, we met exasperation from these official bodies.
The Health and Safety Executive is fed up to its back teeth with cases where ‘health and safety’ is cited without foundation, to justify everything from the cutting down of fruit trees (in case they encourage wasps), to the desecration of millions of gravestones by ‘safety consultants’, to banning triangular cakes from school canteens, because said pastries slightly resemble ninja throwing weapons.
SAFETY MYTH BUSTED #3
MYTH: At the peak of the hysteria, councils toppled hundreds of thousands of headstones to protect the public.
Bereaved relatives were ordered to pay hundreds of pounds to make graves ‘secure’. In some regions, no graveyard went unscathed
IN REALITY… A six-year-old boy was killed in 2000 when he climbed on top of an old headstone. But the majority of affected gravestones were modest and modern, incapable of killing anyone.
The senseless policy caused misery and vast damage. The law was changed, but not one person was sacked
So what can you do when faced with a jobsworth in a uniform or down the other end of the line saying you cannot do something that you suspect is neither against the law nor will pose any realistic threat to safety?
Ask for evidence. Ask them to justify it. And don’t accept vague references to safety or security rules. If someone says the DPA is preventing them from being helpful, ask them to explain in what way exactly, and which part of the act is relevant.
As the ICO says: ‘The ICO has just issued guidance urging parents to challenge anyone trying to use the DPA as a duck-out in this way.’
When something has been done ‘in the interests of safety’, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is in our interests.
Many new safety rules, and much of the modern security business, create self-interested jobs and markets and cadres of self-sustaining bureaucracy that progress from one perceived threat to the next.
So, ‘in the interests of safety’ might well turn out to mean ‘in the interests of a lucrative consultancy that offers advice on internet safety’ or ‘in the interests of a big business with an Olympics retail licence’.
The interests of safety could even mean, we found, ‘contrary to your interests’ or ‘endangering you because no one bothered to check the evidence’, because many safety rules introduce unintended and undesirable consequences, such as discouraging people from learning to swim or to manage risks effectively.
Rules made in the name of safety and security that ignore the consequences lead to a lack of accountability – to the belief that social responsibility has been discharged merely by introducing the rule.
This is the opposite of more responsibility and safety, and it might well explain why we don’t feel particularly safe even though we are surrounded by ever more security guards and safety officers.
It’s within our power to change that. Unless we press the case, organisations won’t drop pointless and counter-productive rules.
But by asking the right questions at the right times, we can stem the tide of safety and security rules and even, as some of the determined people in our book found, roll it back.
©Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon, 2014
ln The Interests Of Safety by Tracey Brown and Michael Hanlon is published by Sphere priced £12.99. To order your copy at the special price of £11.49 with free p&p, call the Mail Book Shop on 0844 472 4157 or go to mailbookshop.co.uk.