HSfB Blog

Guardian Angel

Ever wondered how Health and Safety for Beginners started?  If you have, here's the story from our founder John Johnston (i.e. me)...

Accidents Don't Need to Happen

After suffering a back injury at work in 2002, my life changed in an instant and would never be the same.

The accident itself was not a spectacular event by any means, there was no machinery involved, no explosions, no falls from a great height, no blood and guts, just a manual handling task I had done a few times before.  All I had to do was lift a heavy steel beam from the floor up a few inches and onto a wooden pallet.  A dual lift with a colleague.  We both managed the task and carried on with our Friday.  The next day, Saturday, I felt crippled and couldn't get out of bed because of the unbearable pain.  Not so good when my daughter was in her cot crying for food and a nappy change!

It turns out I had slipped two discs causing me to spend the next 2 ½ years virtually housebound living on Incapacity Benefit.

Naturally this placed incredible strain on home life for my wife and young daughter (two years old at the time), not only in monetary terms, but simple things like going shopping, visiting friends and family, pulling up socks, or even lifting a full kettle. All the things many people take for granted. The hardest part of these years was not being able to lift, carry or play easily with my young daughter who had no concept of why her mum could and I couldn't. Kids are amazing creatures though; she was OK with the limited physical activities we could do together.

People who are risk aware (like us H&S types) are probably quite careful at home too.

A common perception seems to be that "it's common sense" that if I don't take any safety measures at home when I'm doing something, I shouldn't expect my employer to insist on me taking precautions, besides I hate those earplugs, can't hear the radio with them in.

I used to get a giggle from my kids when they saw me wearing safety glasses when I painted a ceiling, paint in the eyes is such a pain.

I think the risks are much greater at work not because the tasks are any different, but because the number of times per day those tasks are performed is much greater, and I'm often close to other people doing things that present a hazard to me, or who distract me.

You often see signs on construction site gates specifying the ever growing list of PPE that must be worn by everyone while they are on site, and having been a technical courier (the person who turns up to fix the office photocopier / printer / computer) I can tell you first hand that they are serious about this.

I dared to walk through the gates of a building site in Glasgow one day, to deliver a new photocopier part to the offices just inside the gate when I was accosted by a brusque foreman type who insisted that I should turn back because I didn't have a hard hat on, or hi viz, or even toe tectors.... "They don't go well with the suit, and I'm just going there to fix the office photocopier" I explained in my normal jovial manner, pointing to the portacabins about three metres away.

"Doesn't matter, it's a blanket policy" I was informed by the very efficient chap.

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Back in the day when I something of a technical type I had occassion to visit lots of offices, warehouses, cash and carries and factories to fix various pieces of broken equipment.

Now I had ten calls to do a day, and I often covered 300 miles in the process, so I didn't have time to hang around at the customer's premesis, and I was well aquainted with the work I was to do and the environment I would have to do it in, since I did this sort of work all the time, so a broken till meant out on the retail floor, a dodgy photocopier was generally in an office, I'm sure you get the idea.

So one day I turn up with a replacement printer for a till in one of the larger cash and carries in Hillington near Glasgow. I get the printer onto my trolley (keeping manual handling to a minimum... it was one of those huge laser printers) and nip into customer service to find out which till needs fixing.

"Oh it's this one, but you need to go and sign in at the desk at the employee's entrance"


I often hear people trying to justify why they haven't assessed a hazard properly by using that old chestnut...'it's never happened before'.

My usual response is 'that may be true, but it doesn't make it right'.   However, since finding this quote, I like to bring this one up...


“When anyone asks how I can best describe my experience in nearly 40 years, I merely say, uneventful. Of course there have been winter gales, and storms and fog the like, but in all my experience, I have never been in any accident of any sort worth speaking about. …… I never saw a wreck and never have been wrecked, nor was I ever in any predicament that threatened to end in disaster of any sort. You see, I am not very good material for a story”

Captain Smith, Commander of Titanic



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