Health, Safety and Exhilaration

There exists a certain gulf, or maybe a canyon, between the two lands of health and safety on the one side and exhilaration on the other. Between lies a certain mystery at how the two might be joined. Surely it is not necessary for these two concepts to live in total isolation. Yet attempts to weave any commonality of experience or objective (and never methodology) seems futile.

I have recently spent many hours working at height in a 51′ cherry picker. An experience well outside my comfort zone. With the added ingredients of a chainsaw, Silky saw, and several tonnes of timber there was plenty which could go seriously wrong. The nature of the work means if you operate correctly the job gets done but if you make a mistake or miscalculate a risk someone gets injured or something gets badly broken.

Faced with these ingredients and potential outcomes the reality is we want to push through the fear while managing the risk. Yet it sometimes feels as if modern health and safety actually wants us to avoid any fear by removing all risk.

The problem is that bit of us that wants to experience the other side of that fear. In my case to see the job done and done well.

I have always struggled to articulate how the person facing the fear and taking the risk can actually be rewarded by taking responsibility for both. I think the resentment comes when we are told we are not allowed to take the responsibility ourselves and that instead we have to submit to someone else’s responsibility and processes to manage our own (and others’) safety.

I have just read John Muir’s description of wanting to get to a viewpoint where he can see over the edge of a waterfall – from within the rushing water as it approaches the edge!

A copy of this at the start of every Health & Safety Manual under the title of HSE (where HSE stands for Health Safety and Exhilaration instead of Health & Safety Executive) would ensure the whole subject is put in appropriate perspective.

I took off my shoes and stockings and worked my way cautiously down alongside the rushing flood keeping my feet and hands pressed firmly on the polished rock. The booming, roaring water, rushing past close to my head, was very exciting….

At length, after careful scrutiny of the surface, I found an irregular edge of a flake of the rock some distance back from the margin of the torrent. If I was to get down to the brink at all that rough edge, which might offer slight finger-holds, was the only way. But the slope beside it look dangerously smooth and steep, and the swift roaring flood beneath, overhead, and beside me was very nerve-trying. I therefore concluded not to venture father, but did nevertheless…

I crept down safely to the little ledge, got my heels well planted on it, then shuffled in a horizontal direction 20 or 30 feet until close to the out plunging current, which, by the time it had descended this far, was already white. Here I obtained a perfectly free view down into the heart of the snowy, chanting throng of comet-like streamers, into which the body of the fall soon separates.

While perched on that narrow niche I was not distinctly conscious of danger. The tremendous grandeur of the fall in form and sound and motion, acting at close range, smothered the sense of fear, and in such places one’s body takes keen care for safety on its own account.

My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir 1911

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John Muir quote

“Life seems neither long nor short, and we take no more heed to save time or make haste than do the trees and stars. This is true freedom, a good practical sort of immortality.”

13th June 1869, My First Summer in the Sierra, John Muir

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