AS recently-appointed health and safety officer for the local church, Ian has this week been working on a written policy to present to the PCC. An atheist who believes, with Richard Dawkins, that religion itself is a potentially dangerous practice, I think this is his way of lessening the threat it poses to the world. He might not be able to stop inter-faith wars, but he can at least prevent members of the congregation poisoning themselves by inadvertently swallowing hazardous substances in the church kitchen – Flash being one example cited in the guidance notes – or even (heaven forbid) shepherd’s pie made by an untrained ‘food provider.’
Reflecting on this, I turn to watch a BBC2 programme that could save my life. At least that’s what the voice-over says. It’s Horizon and it’s just up my street. Disasters are survivable is the message. Plane crashes, terrorist attacks, shipwrecks, fires: there is always something you can do to save yourself if you’re caught up in one. “People inevitably say ‘It couldn’t happen to me.’ But it can,” was the dark warning. My middle daughter, Morag, says this is one thing I will never be able to say, on the grounds that there is no disaster at all that I haven’t at some stage imagined myself and every member of my family being in the middle of. If visualising and planning are pointers to survival, then I’m going to be among the lucky ones. (Except that writing this, of course, immediately negates my chances of escape: it’s what my mother used to call ‘tempting fate’). The man who never settles in a hotel without first walking the fire escape route, counting the doors between his room and the fire door, and then – just in case – keeps a smoke mask at the side of his bed, whether at home or away, is a man after my own heart. He says he has had great difficulty persuading his wife that she too should keep one, and practise putting it on every night before she goes to bed. Silly woman. I must sound Ian out on this one.
There were some interesting facts: don’t sleep above the sixth-floor level in a hotel – fire appliance ladders can’t reach beyond that. Don’t sleep in a cabin below the water-line on a ferry. And if your plane has crash landed and you’re told to evacuate, don’t start rootling about in the overhead lockers looking for your duty-free.
Peer pressure is a major survival factor. In an experiment, 75 per cent of people put in a waiting-room on their own into which smoke was gradually introduced, raised the alarm within the first minute. When accompanied by actors instructed to ignore it, that fell to 10 per cent: people don’t want to look silly in front of colleagues.
‘Friendly fire syndrome’ is another big factor. People underestimate the danger of fire and how quickly it can spread, especially when they can’t actually see it but can smell smoke. On 9/11 people in the towers took at least 5-8 minutes before they began to disengage and evacuate. Some took 30-40 mins. They finished emails, shut down computers, locked things in safes, even went to the toilet before starting to get out. Most had not had regular fire training, the notable exception being Morgan Stanley employees who’d been regularly drilled for years. Of 3,400 Morgan Stanley employees, just 13 died. They knew where the staircases were, they knew not to stop to gather belongings, and they knew that in a potentially dangerous situation, every second counts.
Suddenly, health and safety begins to sound like a good idea after all.