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Health, safety and growth

John Noakes, who died today, was a children’s television presenter who would do things like climb Nelson’s Column without a safety harness. I have seen comments about health and safety rules preventing such acts of bravery today. Indeed, another presenter on the same programme had the advantage of scaffolding many years later. But in this case it is not that health and safety rules have gone mad, it is that working conditions have improved because it has become cheaper to improve them. Presumably modern scaffolding is cheaper to erect due to advances in materials and techniques. In other words, due to economic growth. Even television steeplejack Fred Dibnah himself pointed out, “to circumnavigate the wall of that chimney, which might be sixty-odd feet circumference, with scaffolding is going to cost a heck of a lot of money. That’s why steeplejacks can still earn a crust of bread.”

As admirable as Fred’s craft was, it is a sign of progress if people can no longer earn a crust of bread doing it because scaffolding costs a heck of a lot less.

My late night pondering aside, there are some good videos of people at height behind those links. I particularly recommend watching as much Fred Dibnah as possible.

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21 comments to Health, safety and growth

  • bobby b

    “Presumably modern scaffolding is cheaper to erect due to advances in materials and techniques.”

    More likely, it’s not that it’s become cheaper to erect it, but that it’s become so much more expensive to not erect it.

    The costs to be paid resulting from injury or death because of a lack of such protection have increased exponentially in the decades since that climb. Lawsuits, fines, compensation . . .

    Further, changes in the insurance industry have made it almost impossible to decide to risk those costs.

    Now, since the costs are so much higher, it’s hard to risk them out of your own pocket, and to purchase insurance coverage, you need to accept near-constant supervision from your insurers to guarantee that scaffolding is present, and sufficient.

    If anything, scaffolding (and other protections of that ilk) are much more expensive than they used to be. But, as I said, the lack of them costs even more.

  • Roué le Jour

    “Watch as much Dibnah as possible.”

    Indeed. It never occured to me that I needed my own traction engine until I watched Dibnah. To stand alongside it wearing a boilersuit sipping a mug of tea made by the engine itself as it chuffs away contentedly, man and machine in perfect harmony. I’ll pass on the climbing, though, if you don’t mind.

  • Bemused

    Bobby b nails it. Scaffolding is very expensive but almost impossible to “risk assess” away, the consequences from a fall from height is alway severe and the probability is high. Corporate manslaughter and unlimited fines means only a fool would not stump up for scaffolding.

  • Paul Marks

    John Noakes seemed to be a good man – and he was certainly a very good presenter, may he rest in peace.

    As for Fred Dibnah – a wonderful performer. I lived opposite his house during my year in Bolton – although, alas, he was already dead by that time.

  • Mr Ed

    The short answer is the Work at Height Regulations 2005.

    The Health and Safety Executive have a leaflet at a modest 7 pages.

    Put shortly, scaffolding is used more frequently than it might otherwise have been, and costs go up (and perhaps, fewer people come down).

  • TimR

    Visiting multi floor facilities years ago, one could take a ride on some weird contraptions to go from floor to floor, such as a conveyor belt with foot and handholds. Of course if you didn’t dismount at the top you would in theory go round the pulley and head down in an inverted position. Later on, only workers were allowed access. Spoilsports.
    We now live in a world where it is necessary to put “Stop” on the last rung of a ladder.

  • TimR

    Roué,
    I like how you get to the heart of the matter:. Not a, ” would like” or, “be nice to have” . No, it’s a NEED. I feel your pain.

  • Patrick Crozier

    Looking at the YouTube I see no ropes other than those attaching the ladders to the Column. Am I right in thinking that had he lost his grip he would have been going the whole way down? If so, wow! That seems risky even by the standards of the 70s.

  • Mr Ed

    That seems risky even by the standards of the 70s.

    It was Nelson’s Column, England confided that every man should do his duty.

  • Philip Scott Thomas

    Am I right in thinking that had he lost his grip he would have been going the whole way down?

    Yep. John Humphrys was discussing Noakes’s time on Blue Peter with Biddy Baxter on the Today programme this morning. He mentioned how Noakes wasn’t wearing a saftey harness when he climbed Nelson’s Column. Baxter confirmed he wasn’t. But in fairness, she said, neither were the workmen doing the restoration at the time.

  • bobby b

    “I lived opposite his house during my year in Bolton – although, alas, he was already dead by that time.”

    You should have called someone.

  • llamas

    Noakes and Dibnah – two seminal characters from my younger days, now both deceased, I find. Truly, age is catching up with me.

    Dibnah had some soul. He took down chimneys the old-fashioned way – with art and gravity. Oftentimes, the final drop would be initiated by setting fire to the wooden cribbing supporting the parts of the chimney previously removed, and he always said he did it this way so that the chimney would come down with a fire in it, dying in the same way it had lived. It was more than just bricks and mortar with him.

    Get down, Shep! Here’s one I prepared earlier . . . . .

    llater,

    llamas

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    These comments are disappointing. It sounds as if working conditions have been improved by lawsuits and government regulations. Most disappointing, if true. There must be a down-side, like scaffolding is un-necessarily regulated and over-engineered. Or you need a license to erect it and the licenses are deliberately kept in short supply. Throw me a bone, here!

    Incidentally, supposedly the people who erect skyscrapers in America eshew safety equipment because it gets in the way. Is that still the case?

  • bobby b

    “Most disappointing, if true.”

    Myself, I consider them uplifting. It all comes down to valuation of human life.

    The costs imposed on a lack of worker protection mirror the huge increase in value that society places on each human worker. Used to be, if a few unlettered workers fell to their deaths in the accomplishment of some project, it was no big deal – it was simply a (cheap) cost of production. Look at the number of deaths of workers building the Panama canal.

    Over time, this became unacceptable, and so society began to protect peoples’ lives through the most capitalistic means possible – by making the uncaring pay financially for their lack of care, raising the price until no one can afford to be uncaring. Cause your insurer to pay a few multi-million-dollar settlements to the next of kin, and you’ll never be able to buy insurance again, and thus you are bankrupt.

    It’s not legalism winning; it’s capitalism coming through for us once again!

    (And, yes, workers themselves are the biggest obstacle to the use of safety equipment. Wearing a fall harness connected to structure impedes work and mobility and is exhausting. Saw guards slow down work and make it harder to work accurately. Hard hats and visibility vests are hot. Workers dislike it as much as bosses do. But it really can’t be left to choice; the coercive aspects (“you don’t really need us to hook up all the barriers and harnesses, do you?”) are too strong.)

  • I sneeze in threes

    “As for Fred Dibnah – a wonderful performer. I lived opposite his house during my year in Bolton – although, alas, he was already dead by that time.”

    Paul Marks is Alan Bennett and I claim my five pounds!

  • Hands up all those who have run a scaffolding company? *Looks around* That would be just me, then.

    There are two ways of safely working at heights:

    1) You use scaffolding, erected in such a way that anyone with minimal training can access the “work front”, e.g. a painter.
    2) You use somebody who is trained in rope access techniques, i.e. can do the job while abseiling.

    No. 1 is usually much better: more people can access the work fronts, you don’t need to be specially trained to access them, working conditions are less stressful, etc. And as the cost is in erecting it, and even that isn’t very expensive, it can be left in-situ for a while fairly cheaply. Seriously, scaffolding is cheap, even the manpower to erect it. Scaffolding companies (and I worked for one of the biggest) make their money on volume.

    You go for No. 2 if it is a one-off job or short-duration job, or it only requires 2-3 people, or the scaffolding would be so high and complex that building it would be more effort than doing the actual job (e.g. replacing the light at the top of a radio mast). A few years ago I did a job to simulate replacing a flare tip on one of our FPSOs, which required working with rope access guys on a mock tower in Eindhoven. They were very impressive to watch.

    The risk assessments for each are standard, very easy to carry out. Deciding which one to use doesn’t take long, it’s usually pretty obvious. Modern HSE regulations require either 1) or 2) to be used, and also these days you’d not get guys willing to do what Noakes did. I had a conversation with an old-school scaffolder about this when I was offshore in 2008: he said when the regulations first came in, some people refused to wear a harness. A short time later you’d not find a single guy to work at heights without one. This is generally a good thing.

  • bobby b

    “Seriously, scaffolding is cheap . . . “

    Said the guy who runs the scaffolding company. 😆

    (It might be a small drop in a ten million dollar project, but it can purely eat the profit out of a hundred-thousand-dollar job.)

  • Mr Ed

    In Hong Kong in 1997, under the Fat Pang regime before the Handover, I noticed that most buildings up to 4 storeys or so that had scaffolding used bamboo.

    This led me to a wikipedia article that hints at the decline of bamboo scaffolding with a passing mention of licensing…

  • It might be a small drop in a ten million dollar project, but it can purely eat the profit out of a hundred-thousand-dollar job

    That’s because people usually forget about it when costing a job, or delays cause the scaffolding to stay up a lot longer *on one particular job front* meaning more scaffolding is required to access other job fronts. If your profits can be eaten by scaffolding costs, you’ve biffed up you costings or the schedule has gone awry. Naturally I’m talking about businesses here, not private individuals wanting their gutters cleaned.

  • bobby b

    “If your profits can be eaten by scaffolding costs, you’ve biffed up your costings or the schedule has gone awry.”

    No argument. Strongly agree.

    If you forget to include a D8 rental in your estimate, or Porta-Potties for a site, or propane for your torpedoes, you sigh and pay the bill out of your planned profit. You can do this because they’re cheap.

    Forget, or underestimate, scaffolding? Not so easy to make up the loss, because it’s not cheap. Which was the point.

  • Forget, or underestimate, scaffolding? Not so easy to make up the loss, because it’s not cheap. Which was the point.

    I fully agree that if a scaffolding contractor has gotten wind you’ve forgotten about scaffolding, i.e. you’re desperate, it’s going to cost you a lot more than your profit margin. 😉 😛