“Lad’s, I’m changing, I’ve seen the light…”
This is our introduction to Blacky (not his real name). He’s a big man, he changes a light bulb in the hotel meeting room without a stepladder, without a chair, he must be 6’5. He’s wide too, a stomach for pints (for supporting them while he leans against the bar, that is), and broad shouldered. He is a giant, built for football or wrestling, but he’s chosen a greater destiny, a greater vocation… he’s our Fás Safe Pass Instructor, and we’re going to be instructed by him for seven long hours.
The safe pass programme is a one-day safety awareness training programme aimed at all construction site personnel to ensure that they have a basic knowledge of health and safety, and will be able to work on site without being a risk to themselves or others who might be affected by their acts or omissions. This is my second Safe Pass course, four years have passed since my first course, and now it has to be renewed. Blacky senses the resentment from me and others. He’s defensive, he expects conflict, he expects argument, “I’m not looking for a personal argument – I see a few blank faces here!” But no-one wants an argument and none of us are here for a fight. We’re just here to pass our Safe Pass course, so we can walk onto a building site.
The logo on his shirt clearly indicates his safety credentials, his qualifications proudly embossed on his chest. Once we’ve all settled, the latecomers safely seated, Blacky begins…
“I’ve no hidden agenda lads”, he announces, and then swiftly skips all the statistics slides, the only part of the day I have a half-interest in. This is not going to be a good day. Blacky lists off safety regulations like my old Latin teacher listing the declension of Bellum, and it’s almost as tedious (but at least Blacky isn’t brandishing a 2-inch thick, 8-inch long, strip of leather):
‘75 degree angle on a ladder… for every 4m up, 1m out… beyond a 30 degree pitch on a roof scaffolding must be used… shuffle away from a truck when you hit a live overhead cable – don’t run… Less than 2m from a 110v transformer to a 230v mains power socket… something about abrasive wheels and residual heat…
Throughout the day he refers to himself in the first person – ‘Blacky, I says to myself…’, ‘Blacky knows what is going on…’ I’m not sure how many times I hear the phrase ‘Are we clear?’ It’s embedded.. I keep saying it now.
There’s a certain ladness, an attempt at chumminess about the whole thing, frequent jokes from Blacky about ‘herself’, the occasional advantage of hearing loss due to over-exposure to noise and ‘herself’, the ‘quare wan’, and in Blacky’s inimitable way, with his great command of the Irish language, the odd ‘Maraya’ (mar dhea (go) – Gaeilge… meaning ‘as it were’), which I haven’t heard since ‘Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’ – or was that ‘musha’?.
“Lads, Hello! Suspension trauma – What causes it?” he demands later in the day, exasperated, frustrated, willing us to learn… “With gravity blood will accumulate at the feet, you can die within ten minutes lads….” “Movement, up and down… you do it at Mass, Lads”, he exclaims. I’m not sure what Church he attends, but they must have some strange rituals.
Finally, 6 hours later, at three, we get the bit about ‘manual handling’, the only aspect of the whole day which could possibly apply to an archaeologist.
Our day ends with an absolutely ‘hilarious’ video starring Pat Short as a hapless building worker (commissioned by the Construction Workers Health Trust). It’s a lumpen, patronising, ‘educational’ film about construction workers health – about not eating the Full Irish every day, cycling/walking to work, drinking less alcohol, taking regular exercise etc.. and it leaves me feeing even angrier than I was at ten this morning.
And then the test, 20 multiple choice questions…
What are the reasons for promoting safety?
a) It’s a good idea.
b) For humanitarian, economic, legal and social reasons.
c) To prevent prosecution
Is it an offence for an employee to…
a) be under the influence at work
b) be a safety representative
c) be safe
I score 18 out of 20 – I didn’t know how old you must be to attend a Safe Pass course (yes, that was a question) and some other pointless question. Unlike the first time four years ago, there was no feedback form.
During 2005 113,000 Safe Pass cards were issued. 161,000 cards were issued in 2006. At €120.00 per person this amounts to the grand total of €13,560,000 in ’05 and €19,320,000 in ’06 – with an unknown percentage subsidised or paid for by FÁS.
It must be acknowledged that, overall, there has been a drop of 25% in the fatality rate in the construction sector over the past decade, but whether that can be put down to Safe Pass is doubtful. I’d posit that the reason is simply a younger workforce with a greater awareness of H & S and workers rights. Construction is still one of the most dangerous sectors. Since 2002, construction has consistently had the highest rate of injuries causing more than three days’ absence, although the rate of injury and fatalities has been gradually decreasing (3.9 fatalities per 100,000 workers in 2006, compared to 8.3 in 2005) and it’s clear from the HSE reports* that small service providers (mainly sub-contractors) are over-represented in the fatality figures. Large contractors tend to have much better established H & S procedures, management and training (however, the HSE do refer to one case ‘of a prominent building contractor, the judge was scathing in the comments made on the persistent abuse of safety procedures, yet the fines were derisory’).
Certainly Safe Pass has a role, as part of an overall awareness strategy, but it’s relevance to archaeologists is minimal – in fact, archaeologists are exempt from Safe Pass (unless an ‘objective assessment shows that employees having SP would help the employer [comply with the H & S legislation] then the employer should give strong consideration to having workers obtain SP). As it happens, mar dhea go, many of our clients insist on archaeologists having safe pass accreditation, so sitting through the day every four years is unavoidable.
*Summary of Injury, Illness and Fatality Statistics, 2005-2206, HSE