© Stuart Martin
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Health and Safety Gone Sane
Eighteen of us had just sat through a three-hour presentation of the management’s latest revisions of safe working procedures. It was as tedious and dry as it sounds, and we all needed the various forms of liquid caffeine we were about to drink.
Colin looked around the assembled tradesmen before his eyes settled on me. He dropped a fist on the table. “It’s health and safety gone mad…What do you say, Ray?”
I knew where he was coming from. But Colin is a similar age to me, almost sixty, and perhaps in denial about the past. I fixed him with a smile. “Don’t you remember what it was like in the eighties.” I did. 1981 in particular.
1981! Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, Shergar romped home in the Derby, Steve Davis ruled the snooker world, Spurs won the FA cup, Raiders of the Lost Ark was big at the box office, and the internet was a decade hence. Ancient history to the young, but a collection of life memories for me. Some clear, most hazy. However, on the 24th of November that year, I experienced the most surreal incident of my life, and it is as vivid a memory now as if it happened a minute ago.
Back then, the only place I remember ‘health’ and ‘safety’ being in the same sentence was on a mottled board pinned to the wall in the workshop at the tannery where I worked. I don’t think anyone ever read past the large font heading, I certainly didn’t.
A few days before the seminal event, I asked my foreman, Jack Bottomley, AKA Laid-Back Jack, LJ for short, if the company would pay for my IEE wiring regulations course. His reaction summed up the culture of the time. He crumpled one corner of his mouth and took a slow draw on his cigar. With a sloth-like tilt of the head, he took the cigar from his mouth and released a ribbon of smoke. “You’ll have to go in your own time.”
“No problem.” That was the best I’d hoped for. I was twenty-two, eager to keep up to date with things in the electrical trade, and would have forked out for it myself if I had to. “…Thanks.”
I was about to go on my way when LJ put a hand on my shoulder. “Ray - one proviso.”
He leaned a little closer and lowered his voice. “Don’t try and implement it here. We can’t have production slowed down.” He tapped a finger on the side of his nose. “Understood?”
“Understood.” I doffed an imaginary cap.
That kind of comment could land you in big trouble today. But old Laid-Back was a man for the times. He knew the situation and the part he played in it, we both did. No one would thank you for stopping production on safety grounds because it’s impossible to prove you prevented an accident before it happened. And everyone who worked in the tannery, from the MD to the guy who swept up the leather off-cuts wanted production to go up because their pay went up with it.
And there was no fear of recrimination when accidents did happen, no responsibility, personal or corporate. There was a blame culture, the person who had the accident was at fault.
A bloke who worked in the drying shed had been having trouble with the conveyor for weeks, and reported the problem several times. The belts on the drive were slack and kept slipping. To get it working again he would reach up and give the belts a tug. One day he pulled a bit too hard and his hand went around the pulley and emerged three fingers short.
I don’t recall any great fuss. The authorities were either not interested in such a grotty backwater of a factory, or bought off. No one was called to account, injury lawyers hadn’t yet emerged on the scene, and by common consent it was his own stupid fault. Nobody railed against it. That was the norm.
After a few weeks off with only statutory sick pay, he came back to work doing the same job with thumb and index finger. But at least the slipping belts had been fixed.
The morning of Tuesday 24th November 1981 was crisp, clear, and very cold. For seven and a half of my eight-mile moped journey to work my hands and face were numb.
A combination of shaking and breathing on them got some movement back in my fingers by the time I reached the clocking-on point. Tony, my workmate and sometime drinking buddy, was stood in front of the rack pulsing his eyes wide. “Ray, thank fuck you’re here. Can you see my card? I got blathered last night, and that Marksman Export gives me a stinking headache.”
“Why do you keep drinking it then?” I punched both our cards.
“I like it.”
“You plonker.” I gave him a gentle shoulder barge.
Tony raised both hands to his head and cradled it like a precious artefact. “Don’t – that bloody hurt.”
In our little workshop, Tony slumped on a chair at the end of the bench while I sorted us mugs of tea.
LJ’s default setting was stealth, and neither of us noticed him standing at my shoulder until he spoke, “Did you drive to work in that state?” He grimaced at Tony.
Tony tried to smile, but couldn’t make it stick. “I took it real steady.”
LJ caught my eye with a twinkling glance. “Looks like you didn’t have much choice.” He took a half-smoked cigar from his top pocket and started to pick at the end.
I stifled my grin before it took hold. “Leave him, Jack. He’s feeling delicate.”
“I’m fine.” Tony stirred his tea with gusto as if to emphasise the point.
LJ put a lighter to the cigar and took a couple of puffs. He inspected the glowing end as he asked, “Do either of you fancy a bit of overtime tonight, we need the isolator on Limeyard crane moving when the shift finishes?”
Tony sank down further and pulled the mug to his chest like a comforter. “Not me. Got a darts match tonight and I want to get a few in early – steady the old arm.”
LJ rolled his eyes to me, the question still hanging. I shrugged. “Why not, I’ve got nothing special on.” That was true. But I hated those bone-chilling moped journeys and had decided to save for a car, so the money would be handy too.
The kindest description of the ‘Limeyard’ would be unpleasant. It was a huge hangar-style building with massive sliding doors at either end that were always open, even in the depths of winter. Hides, fresh off the animals, came in at the river end. They were then processed using wooden drums and machines to remove the hair and any remnants of flesh. Everything, even the air, had a damp, greasy tinge. And the concoction of chemicals used in the processes meant that every part of the structure was decaying. A lead-lined stomach or a desperate need were the prerequisites for working in there.
A small chemical mixing unit had been installed in Limeyard the previous week. When I went to meet LJ to be shown the task, he was standing next to it talking to a contractor who’d been fitting trace-heating because the water pipes had been freezing up. The factory floor was not LJ’s habitat of choice, as his garb made obvious: new rubber boots, a shiny red hard hat, and a bright yellow thigh length waterproof coat which was stretched tight across his paunch. My first thought - ‘fetish magazine’.
He gestured with his cigar as he told me what was required, then gave me his ‘don’t try and kid me son’ smile. “So, how long?”
LJ was no fool, but I took a chance. I adopted the double teapot, hands on hips stance beloved of plumbers, and sighed. “Hmm…Working on my own - about five hours.”
His lop-sided grin told me he knew I’d doubled my estimate, but he went with it. “Fair enough. As long as it’s finished tonight – alright?”
I held my hands out, palms spread. “Jack, would I let you down?”
LJ narrowed an eye at me before meandering off to a chorus of catcalls and wolf-whistles from the lads on the fleshing machine.
When the workers finished for the day and the machines were turned off, Limeyard had a different feel. The loud chatter and mechanised buzz of earlier was gone, replaced by a timpani of dripping water. The only other sound was an occasional outburst from birds in the rafters, angry at me for intruding on their quiet time.
The overhead crane spanned the width of the building. The isolator that supplied it was way out of reach, a meter and a half above one of the running rails. I slid out the extension ladder and climbed up to it. I’d removed the fuses earlier, but still tested to make sure it was dead before I started to disconnect the crane cable.
It was already chilly, but a gust of cold air from the river end of the building went through to my core. That was the trigger.
I found out later that the contractor who fitted the trace heating had been a bit naughty. He’d looped a neutral off the crane supply. The result was that when the cold air switched the trace heating thermostat on, the neutral in the cable I was holding became live.
The transition was so seamless I didn’t notice it. I wasn’t cold anymore, and all my niggling aches and pains were gone. I felt fantastic, and it seemed so natural to be flying. I soared up and down the building. Changing direction with a tilt of my fingertips I weaved in and out of the roof trusses, smiling at the pigeons as I drifted past. They ignored me. I suspected them to be jealous of my flying skills.
My concept of time must have been warped because my idyllic state seemed to go on and on. When the first semblance of an interruption came I was on my back, eyes closed, fingers interlocked behind my head, floating an inch below the roof. Somewhere, way off in the distance, there was a high-pitched sound that drew my attention. I blocked it out and continued to wallow in the carefree, pain free bath water my psyche was reclining in.
But the sound kept worming in, getting louder each time. When the fifth intrusion came, I realised what it was. Someone, somewhere, was screaming.
It was spoiling my vibe, I had to investigate. Circling down in a slow corkscrew pattern, I looked for the guilty party.
A second later I spotted me, standing on the crane rail five meters off the ground. I was holding the cable at arms-length, my mouth agape, vibrating like an unbalanced washing machine on a spin cycle, and venting a continual piercing tone.
You would think seeing yourself in that condition would be alarming. It wasn’t. In fact, I felt no sense of panic or angst at all. However, with unnatural calm, I evaluated the situation, and decided I needed to get back into my body and let go of that live wire.
The instant I had the thought I was back, and experiencing the physical pain. Desperate, staccato, nasal breaths were all I could take because my chest was so tight. My jaw was locked open, and my shoulder felt as if it had been dislocated and jammed back in ten times.
I steeled myself, and with an act of mental focus I flexed my arm like a whip and threw off the offending cable.
My lungs grasped their chance to fill with air, and I held it there for a moment. Then I released a long, slow breath and sank down on one knee. When my shaking dwindled to a mild tremble, I edged down the ladder.
Looking up to where I’d almost been fried, I thought how close I must have come to plummeting down onto the concrete floor. If that had happened, and I somehow survived the electrocution and the fall, the watchman might have found me when he did his rounds in three hours or so: or he might not have.
Back in the workshop, I had a mug of tea while I regained my composure and assessed the situation. The only physical effect that remained, which also lingered for weeks afterwards, was a toothache-like pain in my shoulder.
But it wasn’t bad enough to stop me working, and I needed to know what had gone wrong out there. So, I went back, found the ‘looped neutral’, cursed the contractor to hell, and finished the job.
On my way to the car park I passed the watchman’s hut. He broke off from rolling a cigarette and called out to me, “Ray, Ray. I thought I heard screaming earlier. Did you hear anything?”
“You heard it? And you didn’t…” I stopped myself. An old codger with a limp, on minimum wage, he did well to be awake. “It was me, I screamed.”
“Nice one, Ray.” He gave a deliberate wink and slid back into his hut.
I was never sure whether he was pleased because I’d cleared up the mystery, or if he thought I was joking.
Next morning, Tony stared into his mug as I told him about my shock, his eyes the colour of a cheap rosé. I was surprised to get the one word of response I did, “Nasty.”
I’d already decided not to relate my out of body antics. That would put me in the alien abduction, seeing Elvis in the kebab shop bracket. People would question my sanity more than they already did, or just think I was jerking their rope.
Years later, when I’d just about stopped caring what people thought, I told the trainer on a first aid course about my experience. He said I must have been very close to death. And though I never lingered on it, even back then I knew it’d been a close call, and I was determined to have it out with LJ.
On my way out of the canteen I saw the man in question and stepped in front of him as he headed in. I told him what the contractor had done, how I got a severe shock, and made it clear I wasn’t happy.
LJ manoeuvred a cigar to the side of his mouth whilst patting his pockets in search of a lighter. He frowned at his failure to find a means of combustion and edged around me. “Looped neutrals – you want to watch out for them.” He stopped with the canteen door held ajar. “You got it finished - right?”
I pinched my eyebrows together. “I could have died.” LJ conversed as much with expressions as words. His mouth slackened and his eyes invited me on. “YES…I finished it.”
It seemed I’d provoked Colin into a reminiscence. He leant back in his chair, his gaze focussed on a distant point. A few seconds later, his attention drifted back to the room. “There was some pretty dodgy stuff went on back in the day.”
A grey-haired old guy sat in the corner chuckled. “And some…” His laugh turned into a chesty cough.
“Exactly.” I postured up. “I for one am lucky to still be here. So, what I say is, it’s health and safety gone sane. Perhaps a little too sane at times, but it needed a kick up the jacksy.”
Colin stroked his chin and gave a laconic nod. “Yea, you’ve got a point.”